Adaptation of vectors and drug-inducible systems for controlled expression of transgenes in the tumor microenvironment

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Abstract

Biological therapies based on recombinant proteins such as antibodies or cytokines are continuously improving the repertoire of treatments against cancer. However, safety and efficacy of this approach is often limited by inappropriate biodistribution and pharmacokinetics of the proteins when they are administered systemically. Local administration of gene therapy vectors encoding these proteins would be a feasible alternative if they could mediate long-term and controlled expression of the transgene after a single intratumoral administration. We describe a new vector platform specially designed for this purpose. Different combinations of transactivators and promoters were evaluated to obtain a fully humanized inducible system responsive to the well-characterized drug mifepristone. The optimal transactivator conformation was based on DNA binding domains from the chimeric protein ZFHD1 fused to the progesterone receptor ligand binding domain and the NFkb p65 activation domain. The expression of this hybrid transactivator under the control of the elongation factor 1α (EF1α) or the chimeric CAG promoters ensured functionality of the system in a variety of cancer types. Expression cassettes with luciferase as a reporter gene were incorporated into High-Capacity adenoviral vectors (HC-Ad) for in vivo evaluation. Systemic administration of the vectors into C57BL/6 mice revealed that the vector based on the EF1α promoter (HCA-EF-ZP) allows tight control of transgene expression and remains stable for at least two months, whereas the CAG promoter suffers a progressive inactivation. Using an orthotopic pancreatic cancer model in syngeneic C57BL/6 mice we show that the local administration of HCA-EF-ZP achieves better tumor/liver ratio of luciferase production than the intravenous route. However, regional spread of the vector led to substantial transgene expression in peritoneal organs. We reduced this leakage through genetic modification of the vector capsid to display RGD and poly-lysine motifs in the fiber knob. Safety and antitumor effect of this gene therapy platform was demonstrated using interleukin-12 as a therapeutic gene. In conclusion, we have developed a new tool that allows local, sustained and controlled production of therapeutic proteins in tumors.

Graphical abstract

A single inoculation of the HCA-RK7-EFZP vector into orthotopic pancreatic tumors allows several cycles of transgene expression in response to mifepristone (Mfp).

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