B cell lymphoma is the most common hematologic malignancy in the United States. Although treatment options have greatly improved in the past several decades, outcomes for patients with relapsed B cell lymphoma remain poor. Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells have recently entered the clinic with promise to address the gap in effective therapies for patients relapsed B cell lymphoma. However, antigen loss and poor CAR T cell persistence has been shown to drive resistance to the widely approved CD19-targeted CAR in some patients, demonstrating the need for additional therapies. Here, we demonstrate CD229-targeted CAR T cell therapy as a promising option for the treatment of relapsed B cell lymphoma, addressing an important group of patients with typically poor outcomes.

CD229 is an immune-modulating receptor expressed on the surface of B cells that we recently found to be highly expressed in the plasma cell neoplasm multiple myeloma (Radhakrishnan et al. 2020). We utilized semi-quantitative PCR and flow cytometry to assess whether CD229 is also expressed on malignant B cells earlier in development as found in B cell lymphoma. Expression analysis revealed the presence of CD229 in a panel of 11 B cell lymphoma cell lines and 45 primary B cell lymphoma samples comprising several subsets of disease including aggressive B cell lymphomas such as diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL), mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) and Burkitt lymphoma as well as indolent subtypes of B cell lymphoma including chronic lymphoblastic leukemia (CLL) and follicular lymphoma. Of note, CD229 was found to be overexpressed on primary B cell lymphoma cells when compared to autologous normal B cells.

Given the high levels of CD229 expression throughout all B cell lymphoma subtypes analyzed, we generated CD229 CAR T cells in order to determine whether CAR T cell therapy is an effective way to target CD229 expressing B cell lymphoma cells. CD229 CAR T cells exhibited robust cytotoxicity when cocultured with B cell lymphoma cell lines and primary samples characterized by significant production of TH1 cytokines IL-2, TNF and IFNγ and rapid loss of B cell lymphoma cell viability when compared to control CAR T cells lacking an antigen binding scFv domain (∆scFv CAR T cells). In vivo analysis revealed effective tumor control in NSG mice carrying B cell lymphoma cell lines JeKo-1 (MCL) and DB (DLBCL) when treated with CD229 CAR T cells versus ∆scFv CAR T cells.

Finally, we sought to determine the efficacy of CD229 CAR T cells in the context of CD19 CAR T cell therapy relapse. Here, a 71-year-old patient with CLL had an initial response when treated with CD19 CAR T cells but quickly relapsed only 2 months after treatment. Malignant cells from the CLL patient retained CD229 expression as identified by flow cytometry and an ex vivo coculture with CD229 CAR T cells revealed robust killing of CLL cells by CD229 CAR T cells. Transfer of antigen from target cell to CAR T cell by trogocytosis was recently suggested to drive relapse following CAR T cell therapy by decreasing antigen on tumor cells and promoting CAR T cell fratricide (Hamieh et al. 2019). We cocultured CD19 and CD229 CAR T cells with primary CLL cells and assessed CD19 and CD229 expression as well as CAR T cell viability by flow cytometry. In contrast with CD19 CAR T cells, CD229 CARs did not strip their target antigen from the surface of CLL cells. The transfer of CD19 from CLL cells to CD19 CAR T cells resulted in poor CAR T cell viability while CD229 CAR T cell viability remained high following coculture.

In summary, we demonstrate that CD229 is a promising therapeutic target in B cell lymphoma due to its high levels of expression throughout many subtypes of disease. CD229 CAR T cells effectively kill B cell lymphoma cells in vitro and control growth of aggressive B cell lymphomas in vivo. Finally, CD229 CAR T cells are effective against primary CLL cells from patients that have relapsed from CD19 CAR T cell therapy and do no exhibit antigen loss by trogocytosis. Taken together, these data suggest that CD229 CAR T cell therapy may be a promising option to address the poor outcomes for patients with relapsed B cell lymphoma.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

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