In a phase I/II clinical trial investigating the prophylactic infusion of suicide gene-modified donor T cells in the context of haploidentical hemopoietic cell transplantation (haplo-HCT) for the treatment of high-risk leukemia, we observed a rapid and effective immune reconstitution. After activation with anti-CD3 antibodies, genetic modification of donor T cells was accomplished with a retroviral vector encoding for the Herpes Simplex thymidine kinase (TK). In vitro before infusion and in vivo at immune reconstitution, TK+ cells displayed an effector memory (EM) phenotype (CD45RA–CD62L−, CD28±CD27+, IL-2±IFN–γ+). The graft-versus-leukemia (GvL) effect was substantial in patients transplanted in remission, but failed to cure patients in relapse. Gene targeting with retroviral vectors is limited to memory T cells. Central memory (CM) T cells (CD45RA–CD62L+, CD28+CD27+, IL-2+IFN-γ±) share many characteristics with stem cells, namely the ability to self-renew and to differentiate into a progeny of effector cells. EM TK+ cells have a reduced alloreactivity. Recently, it has been proposed that alloreactivity may be confined to memory T cells with stem cell-features. Since alloantigens are the target not only of graft-versus-host disease (GvHD), but also of the GvL effect, crucial to the success of the strategy is the suicide gene-modification of this subset of memory T cells. We found that addition of CD28 costimulation on cell-sized beads and the use of homeostatic cytokines, such as IL-7 and IL-15, generates central memory (CM) TK+ cells. CM TK+ cells are highly alloreactive, both in vitro and in vivo in a humanized animal model of GvHD based on the grafting of human skin onto NOD/scid mice. Interestingly, CM TK+ cells express the IL7Rα, a marker associated with the stem cell-features of memory T cells. Moreover, IL7Rα expression is maintained after stimulation with alloantigens. Stimulation of CM, but not of EM TK+ cells with autologous dendritic cells pulsed with restricted peptides from the minor histocompatibility alloantigen (mHag) HA-1 or H-Y efficiently induces mHag-specific effector T cells that lyse natural ligand expressing HLA-A2+ targets. TK+ mHag-specific effector T cells also lysed mHag+HLA-A2+ leukemic cells and, when infused in conditioned NOD/scid mice harboring human leukemia, significantly delayed disease progression. Altogether, these data suggest that optimal T-cell receptor triggering and homeostatic cytokines are required for retroviral targeting of a suicide gene to alloreactive memory stem T cells and warrant their use for a safe and powerful GvL effect.

Author notes

Disclosure:Employment: ST and MR are employees of Molmed SpA. Consultancy: CB is a consultant of Molmed SpA.