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Biotech, Cancer Center Partner on T-Cell Research

Human T-cell lymphocyte

Scanning electron micrograph of a human T-cell lymphocyte (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH)

20 November 2017. A developer of cancer diagnostics and treatments is collaborating with Moffitt Cancer Center to advance therapies for ovarian cancer with T-cells from the immune system. The partnership between Moffitt, in Tampa, Florida and ITUS Corp. in San Jose, California is a cooperative research and development agreement, where the parties share staff and facilities, but do not usually involve transfers of funds.

ITUS and Moffitt plan to further develop treatments to attack ovarian cancer tumors. The technology is based on T-cells, white blood cells in the immune system altered to express chimeric antigen receptors, being adopted as treatments for some blood-related cancers, such as leukemia. For these blood-related cancers, the engineered T-cells seek out and bind to a protein called CD19 found on the surface of B cells — another type of white blood cell — associated with several blood-related cancers.

In this project, the chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, or CAR T-cells, are modified to target proteins found on ovarian tumors. While expressed on ovarian tumor cells, these proteins, known as follicle-stimulating hormone receptors, are rarely found on healthy cells. Thus treatments seeking out these proteins are likely to cause fewer adverse effects than many current chemotherapies.

Earlier in November, ITUS licensed this CAR T-cell technology from Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. In January 2017, a team from Wistar Institute led by Jose Conejo-Garcia, published a study testing modified T-cells that target follicle-stimulating hormone receptors in lab cultures and mice grafted with several types of human ovarian cancer. The researchers found the engineered T-cells attacked only the tumor cells across all of the ovarian cancer types in the mice, and not the surrounding healthy tissue.

In addition, mice receiving the altered T-cells showed measurable therapeutic effects, including clearance of the tumors in some cases. Moreover, the modified T-cells persisted in the mice, providing immunity against a later introduction of ovarian tumor cells. And the researchers reported longer survival times among the T-cell recipient mice, without noticeable toxicity.

Under the new agreement, Conejo-Garcia, now at Moffitt Cancer Center, will lead a research team to develop CAR T-cells targeting follicle-stimulating hormone receptors to the point of filing an investigational new drug application, in effect a request to Food and Drug Administration to begin clinical trials. “Successive to the FDA’s review and permission,” says Amit Kumar, president of ITUS in a company statement, “we hope to take this therapy into human clinical testing for patients suffering from ovarian cancer.”

ITUS’s main business is liquid biopsy blood tests called Cchek that detect solid tumor cancers based on immunological responses to malignancy. With licensing of the CAR T-cell technology from Wistar Institute, ITUS formed a subsidiary known as Certainty Therapeutics to develop CAR T-cell treatments for solid tumors, beginning with ovarian cancer. Wistar Institute is also a minority partner in Certainty Therapeutics.

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