Children’s National Hospital collects patients’ blood, extracts T-cells and replicates them in the presence of specific proteins found on cancer cells which, in essence, teaches the T-cells to target specific tumor markers. Training the T-cells, growing them to sufficient quantities and ensuring they are safe for administration takes weeks. But when patients return to the outpatient clinic, their T-cell infusion lasts just a few minutes.
For the third consecutive year, Children’s National was selected to compete in STAT Madness, an annual bracket-style competition that chooses the year’s most impactful biomedical innovation by popular vote. Children’s entry, “Immunotherapy of relapsed and refractory solid tumors with ex vivo expanded multi-tumor associated antigen specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes,” uses the body’s own immune system to attack and eliminate cancer cells in pediatric and adult patients with solid tumor malignancies.
In 2018, Children’s first-ever STAT Madness entry advanced through five brackets in the national competition and, in the championship round, finished second. That innovation, which enables more timely diagnoses of rare diseases and common genetic disorders, helping to improve kids’ health outcomes around the world, also was among four “Editor’s Pick” finalists, entries that spanned a diverse range of scientific disciplines.
An estimated 11,000 new cases of pediatric cancer were diagnosed in children 14 and younger in the U.S. in 2019. And, when it comes to disease, cancer remains the leading cause of death among children, according to the National Institutes of Health. An enterprising research team led by Children’s National faculty leveraged T-cells – essential players in the body’s immune system – to treat pediatric and adult patients with relapsed or refractory solid tumors who had exhausted all other therapeutic options.
“We’re using the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer, rather than more traditional chemotherapy drugs,” says Catherine M. Bollard, M.D., director of the Center for Cancer & Immunology Research at Children’s National and co-senior author of the study. “It’s more targeted and less toxic to the patient. These T-cells home in on any cancer cells that might be in the body, allowing healthy cells to continue to grow,” Dr. Bollard adds.
That means patients treated in the Phase I, first-in-human trial didn’t lose their hair and weren’t hospitalized for the treatment. After a quick clinical visit for their treatment, they returned to normal activities, like school, with good energy levels.
“With our specially trained T-cell therapy, many patients who previously had rapidly progressing disease experienced prolonged disease stabilization,” says Holly J. Meany, M.D., a Children’s National oncologist and the study’s co-senior author. “Patients treated at the highest dose level showed the best clinical outcomes, with a six-month, progression-free survival of 73% after tumor-associated antigen cytotoxic T-cell (TAA-T) infusion, compared with 38% with their immediate prior therapy.”
The multi-institutional team published their findings from the study online July 29, 2019, in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
“Our research team and our parents are delighted that some patients treated in our study continue to do well following T-cell therapy without additional treatment. In some cases, two years after treatment, patients do not appear to have active disease and are maintaining an excellent quality of life,” says Amy B. Hont, M.D., the study’s lead author. “One of these was a patient whose parents were told his only other option was palliative care. Our innovation gives these families new hope,” Dr. Hont adds.
The 2020 STAT Madness #Core64 bracket opened March 2, and the champion will be announced April 6.
In addition to Drs. Hont, Meany and Bollard, Children’s National co-authors include C. Russell Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., Robert Ulrey, MS, Barbara O’Brien, BS, Maja Stanojevic, M.D., Anushree Datar, MS, Shuroug Albihani, MS, Devin Saunders, BA, Ryo Hanajiri, M.D., Ph.D., Karuna Panchapakesan, MS, Payal Banerjee, MS, Maria Fernanda Fortiz, BS, Fahmida Hoq, MBBS, MS, Haili Lang, M.D., Yunfei Wang, DrPH, Patrick J. Hanley, Ph.D., and Jeffrey S. Dome, M.D., Ph.D.; and Sam Darko, MS, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the Children’s National Hospital Heroes Gala, Alex’s Army Foundation, the Children’s National Board of Visitors and Hyundai Hope on Wheels Young Investigator Grant to Support Pediatric Cancer Research, the Children’s National Research Institute Bioinformatics Unit, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the National Institutes of Health under award No. UL1-TR001876.
Testicular tissue samples obtained from 189 males who were facing procedures that could imperil fertility were cryopreserved at one university, proving the feasibility of centralized processing and freezing of testicular tissue obtained from academic medical centers, including Children’s National, scattered around the world.
“It’s not surprising that the University of Pittsburgh would record the highest number of samples over the eight-year period (51 patients), given its role as the central processing facility for our recruiting network of academic medical centers,” says Michael Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of transitional urology at Children’s National. “Children’s National recruited the third-highest number of patients, which really speaks to the level of collaboration I have with Jeff Dome’s team and their commitment to thinking about the whole patient and longer-term issues like fertility.”
An estimated 2,000 U.S. boys and young men each year receive treatments or have cancers or blood disorders that place them at risk for infertility. While older youths who have undergone puberty can bank their sperm prior to undergoing sterilizing doses of chemotherapy or radiation, there have been scant fertility preservation options for younger boys. However, some older adolescents and young men are too sick or stressed to bank sperm. For patients with no sperm to bank or who are too sick or stressed to bank sperm, the experimental procedure of freezing testicular tissue in anticipation that future cell- or tissue-based therapies can generate sperm is the only option.
Recent research in experimental models indicates that such testicular tissue biopsies contain stem cells, blank slate cells, hinting at the potential of generating sperm from biopsied tissue.
“This study demonstrates that undifferentiated stem and progenitor spermatogonia may be recovered from the testicular tissues of patients who are in the early stages of their treatment and have not yet received an ablative dose of therapy. The function of these spermatogonia was not tested,” writes lead author Hanna Valli-Pulaski, Ph.D., research assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues in a study published online May 21, 2019, in Human Reproduction.
Right now, hematologists and oncologists discuss future treatment options with patients and families, as well as possible long-term side effects, including infertility. At Children’s National, they also mention the ongoing fertility preservation study and encourage families to speak with Dr. Hsieh. He meets with families, explains the study goals – which include determining better ways to freeze and thaw tissue and separating malignant cells from normal cells – what’s known about experimental fertility preservation and what remains unknown. Roughly half of patients decide to enroll.
“This study is unique in that there is definitely a potential direct patient benefit,” Dr. Hsieh adds. “One of the reasons the study is compelling is that it presents a message of hope to the families. It’s a message of survivorship: We’re optimistic we can help your child get through this and think about long-term issues, like having their own families.”
In this phase of the study, testicular tissue was collected from centers in the U.S. and Israel from January 2011 to November 2018 and cryopreserved. Patients designated 25% of the tissue sample to be used for the research study; 75 percent remains stored in liquid nitrogen at temperatures close to absolute zero for the patient’s future use. The fertility preservation patients ranged from 5 months old to 34 years old, with an average age of 7.9 years.
Thirty-nine percent of patients had started medical treatment prior requesting fertility preservation. Sixteen percent received non-alkylating chemotherapy while 23% received alkylating chemotherapy, which directly damages the DNA of cancer cells.
The research team found that the number of undifferentiated spermatogonia per seminiferous tubule increase steadily with age until about age 11, then rise sharply.
“We recommend that all patients be counseled and referred for fertility preservation before beginning medical treatments known to cause infertility. Because the decision to participate may be delayed, it is encouraging that we were able to recover undifferentiated spermatogonia from the testes of patients already in the early stages of chemotherapy treatments,” Dr. Hsieh says.
In addition to Dr. Hsieh, study co-authors include lead author, H. Valli-Pulaski, K.A. Peters, K. Gassei, S.R. Steimer, M. Sukhwani, B.P. Hermann, L. Dwomor, S. David, A.P. Fayomi, S.K. Munyoki, T. Chu, R. Chaudhry, G.M. Cannon, P.J. Fox, T.M. Jaffe, J.S. Sanfilippo, M.N. Menke and senior author, K.E. Orwig, all of University of Pittsburgh; E. Lunenfeld, M. Abofoul-Azab and M. Huleihel, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; L.S. Sender, J. Messina and L.M. Klimpel, CHOC Children’s Hospital; Y. Gosiengfiao, and E.E. Rowell, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; C.F. Granberg, Mayo Clinic; P.P. Reddy, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; and J.I. Sandlow, Medical College of Wisconsin.
Financial support for the research covered in this post was provided by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development under awards HD061289 and HD092084; Scaife Foundation; Richard King Mellon Foundation; University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation and Kahn Foundation.