Superantigens to the rescue
A team of researchers at UND’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences might just have revolutionized the treatment of solid tumor cancers.
As reported in the prestigious Journal for Immunotherapy of Cancer, a team led by Department of Biomedical Sciences professor David S. Bradley, Ph.D., and David S. Terman, M.D., and adjunct professor with the School, identified two new members of the “superantigen” family that, when combined with a common “helper” molecule, showed significantly higher cure rates in and long-term survival of animals with solid tumors compared to other immunotherapeutic agents now deployed clinically.
“Immunotherapy has completely revolutionized the management of the most treatment-resistant human tumors such as melanoma, lung, breast and colon cancer,” said Terman of using the human immune system itself as an anti-cancer catalyst. “Here, we discovered two new superantigens that unlike others used before them kill advanced tumors in transgenic mice without attendant toxicity.”
Patient, heal thyself
Superantigens are a class of bacterial-based antigens that induce an “overactivation” of the body’s immune system. Specifically, superantigens trigger the white blood cells known as T-lymphocytes or T-cells that help the body generate the inflammatory response that fights infectious organisms and cancer.
“Previous superantigens deployed in clinical trials of patients with advanced cancer failed to reach their potential largely due to their excessive toxicity and the widespread presence of neutralizing antibodies in human blood that blocked the superantigens from exerting their tumor killing function,” Terman continued. “Unlike their earlier relatives, our new superantigens showed a low incidence of such disabling antibodies.”
Terman further explained that he and Bradley were able to eradicate the toxicity noted with other superantigens by combining the new superantigens with a partner molecule known as HLA-DQ8.
“This combination turned the tumors into ‘hotbeds’ of tumor-killing by outside T-cells without the dreaded side effects. Collectively, this established a solid basis to think that humans are going to show similar tumor killing without the deleterious toxicity seen with other superantigens,” he said.
In other words, Bradley and Terman demonstrated that when combined with a molecule that helped reduce toxicity, their superantigens served as lightning rods attracting the body’s own T-cells to the tumor and destroying it in more than 80 percent of mice.
The result, as the pair wrote in their paper, is “a conceptually new anti-tumor weapon with compelling potential for translation to human cancer.”
Making this result even more attractive, Bradley added, is that the anti-tumor mechanism of the superantigens appears to be long-lasting and that it also served as a “vaccine” that prevented the development of tumors and withstood subsequent challenges with live tumor cells.
“The tumor killing seemed to be an ongoing response that continued for quite some time,” he said, noting how the mice “were at least 400 days post-treatment, which is the equivalent to more than 60 human years,” without experiencing any recurrence of cancer.
How we got here
According to Bradley and Terman, the medical community first took a serious look at superantigens around the 1970s and 1980s. Researchers studying toxic shock syndrome (TSS) occurring during Staphylococcus aureus infections recognized that TSS was caused by superantigens produced by the bacteria. By the early 1980s, researchers were exploring how these superantigens could be applied to cancer as a form of immunotherapy.
Recalling this history, both investigators smiled at the notion that literally decades of work may have paid off in a major way.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Terman, who was the first to use superantigens against human cancer in 1981 and subsequently led an international team that identified and applied the new superantigens to tumor therapy. “Our early clinical trials with the original superantigens showed anti-tumor effects in the first four patients, but were hampered by undue toxicity and neutralization by serum antibodies. Over time, we discovered two superantigens that were shaped by nature into a ‘nontoxic form’ against which humans do not have preexisting antibodies that impede their function.”
It was Bradley’s idea to use the new superantigens in some of his transgenic mice expressing human HLA-DQ8 transplanted with the solid tumors. As Bradley explained, after injecting a cohort of mice with the superantigens, “We came back a few weeks later, and whereas most of the untreated mice had died from their tumors, those treated with these new superantigens had rejected their tumors and appeared to be healthy.”
The team is now on the cusp of clinical trials in humans — pending FDA approval. Trials are planned to be carried out collaboratively with UND and a team at the University of Washington in Seattle later this year.
The nature of the killing was ‘striking’
All of which is to say: within 18 months the horizon could look very different for persons with solid tumors.
“The total destruction of the tumor ten to sixteen days after starting treatment and long-term survival even after tumor rechallenge was just remarkable,” concluded Terman, who called the speed and precision of the tumor killing “striking.” “That these agents work not only against established tumors but also as ‘vaccines’ speaks to their potential versatility.”
Bradley agreed, working hard to conceal his excitement.
“The important point here is that the discovery of immunotherapy and its application to solid tumors has taken over now as first-line treatments for dreaded diseases such as melanoma, carcinoma of the breast, lung, and to some degree even colon and kidney cancer,” said Bradley with a glint of satisfaction in his voice. “These have subsumed chemotherapy as front-line treatment. The complete remissions we see with these superantigens as single agents against solid tumors over a relatively short period of time is far superior to what we’ve seen with other immunotherapies. We’re very heartened by this and there’s no reason to believe this wouldn’t be a very successful treatment in humans.”