RNA sensor used to create a better cancer-killing T cell

Using new synthetic biology tools, a bioengineer at Stanford was able to design an RNA toggle switch that could be put into T cells and specifically activated by a drug. The genetically engineered switch used an RNA sensor that responded to a well-known asthma drug, creating a more effective cancer-killing weapon. And the Stanford team proved that the approach worked in animals as well as human cells.

The work is considered particularly important for oncology research, where investigators have been revving up the human immune system to target invasive cancers. One successful strategy has been to extract T cells from patients, multiply them and train them on a specific cancer target and then inject them back into patients. This new approach could prove superior, which would be of great interest to anyone developing new cancer therapies.

"We harvested T cells from humans, and when we put the constructs into the cells, we get the same control over gene expression and downstream proliferation," Christina Smolke, an assistant professor of bioengineering, tells MIT Technology Review.

"This is an integration of a cell-based therapy application with new synthetic biology tools that have come up from foundational research," says Smolke. "The unique aspect is that we're taking new tools for controlling cell function and gene expression, and looking at them in the context of a specific and clinically relevant system."

- check out Stanford's press release
- here's the story from MIT Technology Review