The Immune Health Future, Today

by Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Breaking the code of the immune system could provide a new fundamental way of understanding, treating, and preventing every type of disease. Penn Medicine is investing in key discoveries about immunity and immune system function, and building infrastructure, to make that bold idea a reality.

Several members of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group feature in this story which originally featured in the Penn Medicine Magazine.

Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine Magazine

This grandfather lives with primary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disorder that he controls with a medicine that depletes his body of the type of immune cells that make antibodies. So while he has completed his COVID-19 vaccine course, his immune system function isn’t very strong—and the invitation has arrived at a time when COVID-19 is still spreading rapidly. 

You can imagine the scene as an older gentleman lifts a thick, creamy envelope from his mailbox, seeing his own name written in richly scripted lettering. He beams with pride and gratitude at the sight of his granddaughter’s wedding invitation. Yet his next thought is a sober and serious one. Would he be taking his life in his hands by attending the ceremony?

“In the past, all we could do was [measure] the antibody response,” says Amit Bar-Or, the Melissa and Paul Anderson President’s Distinguished Professor in Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, and chief of the Multiple Sclerosis division. “If that person didn’t have a good antibody response, which is likely because of the treatment they’re on, we’d shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t go because we don’t know if you’re protected.’” 

Today, though, Bar-Or can take a deeper dive into his patients’ individual immune systems to give them far more nuanced recommendations. A clinical test for immune cells produced in response to the COVID-19 vaccine or to the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself—not just antibodies—was one of the first applied clinical initiatives of a major new Immune Health® project at Penn Medicine. Doctors were able to order this test and receive actionable answers through the Penn Medicine electronic health record for patients like the grandfather with MS. 

“With a simple test and an algorithm we can have a very different discussion,” Bar-Or says. A test result showing low T cells, for instance, would tell Bar-Or his patient may get a meaningful jolt in immunity from a vaccine booster, while low antibody levels would suggest passive antibody therapy is more helpful. Or, the test might show his body is already well primed to protect him, making it reasonably safe to attend the wedding.

This COVID-19 immunity test is only the beginning. 

Physicians and scientists at Penn Medicine are imagining a future where patients can get a precise picture of their immune systems’ activity to guide treatment decisions. They are working to bring the idea of Immune Health to life as a new area of medicine. In labs, in complex data models, and in the clinic, they are beginning to make sense out of the depth and breadth of the immune system’s millions of as-yet-undeciphered signals to improve health and treat illnesses of all types. 

Penn Medicine registered the trademark for the term “Immune Health” in recognition of the potential impact of this research area and its likelihood to draw non-academic partners as collaborators in its growth. Today, at the south end of Penn’s medical campus, seven stories of research space are being added atop an office building at 3600 Civic Center Blvd., including three floors dedicated to Immune Health, autoimmunity, and immunology research.

The concept behind the whole project, says E. John Wherry, director of Penn Medicine’s Institute for Immunology and Immune Health (I3H), “is to listen to the immune system, to profile the immune system, and use those individual patient immune fingerprints to diagnose and treat diseases as diverse as immune-related diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and many others.”

The challenge is vast. Each person’s immune system is far more complex than antibodies and T cells alone. The immune system is made of multiple interwoven layers of complex defenders—from our skin and mucous membranes to microscopic memory B cells that never forget a childhood infection—meant to fortify our bodies from germs and disease. It is a sophisticated system that learns and adapts over our lifetimes in numerous ways, and it also falters and fails in some ways we understand and others that remain mysterious. And each person’s intricate internal battlefield is in some way unique.

The immune system is not just a set of defensive barricades, either. It’s also a potential source of deep insight about a person’s physiological functioning and responses to medical treatments.

“The immune system is sensing and keeping track of basically all tissues and all cells in our body all the time,” Wherry says. “It is surveying the body trying to clean up any invaders and restore homeostasis by maintaining good health.”

“Our goal is to essentially break the code of the immune system,” says Jonathan Epstein, executive vice dean of the Perelman School of Medicine and chief scientific officer at Penn Medicine. “By doing so, we believe we will be able to determine your state of health and your response to therapies in essentially every human disease.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Carl June to Receive 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

by Meagan Raeke

Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine

CAR T cell therapy pioneer Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, has been named a winner of the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for the development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell immunotherapy, a revolutionary cancer treatment approach in which each patient’s T cells are modified to target and kill their cancer cells. The invention sparked a new path in cancer care, harnessing the power of patients’ own immune systems, a once-elusive goal that brought fresh options for those who could not be successfully treated with conventional approaches.

Founded in 2012, the Breakthrough Prizes are the world’s largest science awards, with $3 million awarded for each of the five main prize categories. June is the sixth Breakthrough Prize laureate from Penn, which joins Harvard and MIT among the institutions whose researchers have been honored with the most Breakthrough Prizes.

“This award is not only a testament to Dr. June’s outstanding contributions to science, but also a shining example of the caliber of discoveries and research which Penn faculty set their sights upon,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “We are immensely proud to have Dr. June as a member of the Penn academic community, and we know that CAR T cell therapy is just the first chapter in an inspiring and lifesaving new era of medicine.”

June is internationally recognized for his role in pioneering the CAR T cell therapy, which led to the first FDA-approved personalized cellular therapy, for children and young adults with the blood cancer known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, in August of 2017—a step which has spurred five additional approvals of the technique in other blood cancers. June joined Penn in 1999, building momentum for Penn to become a global hub for cell and gene therapy. Gene-modified T cells engineered in June’s lab to retrain a patient’s own immune cells to attack cancer were used in the first clinical trial of CAR T cell therapy in 2010. Some of the earliest children and adults treated have experienced long-lasting remissions of 10 years or more. In addition to the FDA approvals that have made the therapy commercially available to patients across the world, thousands more have benefited from clinical trials testing these transformative treatments, including for the treatment of solid tumors and even autoimmune diseases like lupus.

“Dr. June’s tireless commitment to advancing T cell immunotherapy research has been life-changing for many patients affected by cancer, who have lived longer, fuller lives, thanks to the discoveries made in his lab,” said J. Larry Jameson,executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “We are proud to see one of Penn’s most esteemed scientists recognized for the impact of his foundational work to develop a new class of cancer immunotherapy treatment.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

June is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring June on the BE Blog here.

Carl June on the Boundless Potential of CAR T Cell Therapy

by Meagan Raeke

Carl June, at the flash mob celebration of the FDA approval of the CAR T cell therapy he developed, in August 2017. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine Magazine)

For most of modern medicine, cancer drugs have been developed the same way: by designing molecules to treat diseased cells. With the advent of immunotherapy, that changed. For the first time, scientists engineered patients’ own immune systems to recognize and attack diseased cells.

One of the best examples of this pioneering type of medicine is CAR T cell therapy. Invented in the Perelman School of Medicine by Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, CAR T cell therapy works by collecting T cells from a patient, modifying those cells in the lab so that they are designed to destroy cancerous cells, and reinfusing them into the patient. June’s research led to the first FDA approval for this type of therapy, in 2017. Six different CAR T cell therapies are now approved to treat various types of blood cancers. Carl June, at the flash mob celebration of the FDA approval of the CAR T cell therapy he developed, in August 2017. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine Magazine)

CAR T cell therapy holds the potential to help millions more patients—if it can be successfully translated to other conditions. June and colleagues, including Daniel Baker, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Cell and Molecular Biology department, discuss this potential in a perspective published in Nature.

In the piece, June and Baker highlight other diseases that CAR T cell therapy could be effective.

“CAR T cell therapy has been remarkably successful for blood cancers like leukemias and lymphomas. There’s a lot of work happening here at Penn and elsewhere to push it to other blood cancers and to earlier stage disease, so patients don’t have to go through chemo first,” June says. “Another big priority is patients with solid tumors because they make up the vast majority of cancer patients. Beyond cancer, we’re seeing early signs that CAR T cell therapy could work in autoimmune diseases, like lupus.”

As for which diseases to pursue as for possible future treatment, June says, “essentially it boils down to two questions: Can we identify a population of cells that are bad? And can we target them specifically? Whether that’s asthma or chronic diseases or lupus, if you can find a bad population of cells and get rid of them, then CAR T cells could be therapeutic in that context.”

“What’s exciting is it’s not just theoretical at this point. There have been clinical reports in other autoimmune diseases, including myasthenia gravis and inflammatory myopathy,” Baker says. “But we are seeing early evidence that CAR T cell therapy will be successful beyond cancer. And it’s really opening the minds of people in the field to think about how else we could use CAR T. For example, there’s some pioneering work at Penn from the Epstein lab for heart failure. The idea is that you could use CAR T cells to get rid of fibrotic tissue after a cardiac injury, and potentially restore the damage following a heart attack.”

Baker adds, “there’s no question that over the last decade, CAR T cell therapy has revolutionized cancer. I’m hoping to play a role in bringing these next generation therapies to patients and make a real impact over the next decade. I think there’s potential for cell therapy to be a new pillar of medicine at large, and not just a new pillar of oncology.”

Read the full story at Penn Medicine Today.

Penn Bioengineering Graduate Student on T Cell Therapy Improvements

Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News

 Neil Sheppard,  Adjunct Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, and David Mai, a Bioengineering graduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, explained the findings of their recent study, which offered a potential strategy to improve T cell therapy in solid tumors, to the European biotech news website Labiotech.

Mai is a graduate student in the lab of Carl H. June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in Penn Medicine, Director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at the Abramson Cancer Center, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Read “Immunotherapy in the fight against solid tumors” in Labiotech.

Read more about this collaborative study here.

Carl H. June, MD, FAACR, Honored with 2023 AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research

Carl June, MD

 The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the largest cancer research organization in the country and based in Philadelphia, will bestow its 2023 Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research to Carl June, Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn Medicine. June is also Director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, Director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. He is recognized for his groundbreaking work in developing the first gene-editing cell therapy for cancer and for his pioneering work with CAR T cell therapy.

Read the press release on the AACR website.

A Potential Strategy to Improve T Cell Therapy in Solid Tumors

A new Penn Medicine preclinical study demonstrates a simultaneous ‘knockout’ of two inflammatory regulators boosts T cell expansion to attack solid tumors.

by Meagan Raeke

Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News

A new approach that delivers a “one-two punch” to help T cells attack solid tumors is the focus of a preclinical study by researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that targeting two regulators that control gene functions related to inflammation led to at least 10 times greater T cell expansion in models, resulting in increased anti-tumor immune activity and durability.

CAR T cell therapy was pioneered at Penn Medicine by Carl H. June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy at Penn and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at Abramson Cancer Center, whose work led to the first approved CAR T cell therapy for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2017. Since then, personalized cellular therapies have revolutionized blood cancer treatment, but remained stubbornly ineffective against solid tumors, such as lung cancer and breast cancer.

“We want to unlock CAR T cell therapy for patients with solid tumors, which include the most commonly diagnosed cancer types,” says June, the new study’s senior author. “Our study shows that immune inflammatory regulator targeting is worth additional investigation to enhance T cell potency.”

One of the challenges for CAR T cell therapy in solid tumors is a phenomenon known as T cell exhaustion, where the persistent antigen exposure from the solid mass of tumor cells wears out the T cells to the point that they aren’t able to mount an anti-tumor response. Engineering already exhausted T cells from patients for CAR T cell therapy results in a less effective product because the T cells don’t multiply enough or remember their task as well.

Previous observational studies hinted at the inflammatory regulator Regnase-1 as a potential target to indirectly overcome the effects of T cell exhaustion because it can cause hyperinflammation when disrupted in T cells—reviving them to produce an anti-tumor response. The research team, including lead author David Mai, a bioengineering graduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and co-corresponding author Neil Sheppard, head of the CCI T Cell Engineering Lab, hypothesized that targeting the related, but independent Roquin-1 regulator at the same time could boost responses further.

“Each of these two regulatory genes has been implicated in restricting T cell inflammatory responses, but we found that disrupting them together produced much greater anti-cancer effects than disrupting them individually,” Mai says. “By building on previous research, we are starting to get closer to strategies that seem to be promising in the solid tumor context.”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

June is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring June’s research here.

Carl June and Avery Posey Lead the Way in CAR T Cell Therapy

Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) professors and Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group members Carl June and Avery Posey are leading the charge in T cell therapy and the fight against cancer.

Avery Posey, PhD

Carl June, MD

Advances in genome editing through processes such as CRISPR, and the ability to rewire cells through synthetic biology, have led to increasingly elaborate approaches for modifying and supercharging T cells for therapy. Avery Posey,  Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, and Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, explain how new techniques are providing tools to counter some of the limitations of current CAR T cell therapies in a recent Nature feature.

The pair were also part of a team of researchers from PSOM, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center to receive an inaugural $8 million Therapy ACceleration To Intercept CAncer Lethality (TACTICAL) Award from the Prostate Cancer Foundation. Their project will develop new clinic-ready CAR T cell therapies for Metastatic Castrate-Resistant Prostate Cancer (mCRPC).

Read “The race to supercharge cancer-fighting T cells” in Nature.

Read about the TACTICAL Award in the December 2022 Awards & Accolades section of Penn Medicine News.

CAR T Cell Therapy Reaches Beyond Cancer

Penn Medicine researchers laud the early results for CAR T therapy in lupus patients, which point to broader horizons for the use of personalized cellular therapies.

Penn Medicine’s Carl June and Daniel Baker.

Engineered immune cells, known as CAR T cells, have shown the world what personalized immunotherapies can do to fight blood cancers. Now, investigators have reported highly promising early results for CAR T therapy in a small set of patients with the autoimmune disease lupus. Penn Medicine CAR T pioneer Carl June and Daniel Baker, a doctoral student in cell and molecular biology in the Perelman School of Medicine, discuss this development in a commentary published in Cell.

“We’ve always known that in principle, CAR T therapies could have broad applications, and it’s very encouraging to see early evidence that this promise is now being realized,” says June, who is the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the Abramson Cancer Center.

T cells are among the immune system’s most powerful weapons. They can bind to, and kill, other cells they recognize as valid targets, including virus-infected cells. CAR T cells are T cells that have been redirected, through genetic engineering, to efficiently kill specifically defined cell types.

CAR T therapies are created out of each patient’s own cells—collected from the patient’s blood, and then engineered and multiplied in the lab before being reinfused into the patient as a “living drug.” The first CAR T therapy, Kymriah, was developed by June and his team at Penn Medicine, and received Food & Drug Administration approval in 2017. There are now six FDA-approved CAR T cell therapies in the United States, for six different cancers.

From the start of CAR T research, experts believed that T cells could be engineered to fight many conditions other than B cell cancers. Dozens of research teams around the world, including teams at Penn Medicine and biotech spinoffs who are working to develop effective treatments from Penn-developed personalized cellular therapy constructs, are examining these potential new applications. Researchers say lupus is an obvious choice for CAR T therapy because it too is driven by B cells, and thus experimental CAR T therapies against it can employ existing anti-B-cell designs. B cells are the immune system’s antibody-producing cells, and, in lupus, B cells arise that attack the patient’s own organs and tissues.

This story is by Meagan Raeke. Read more at Penn Medicine News.

Carl June is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring June’s research here.

Penn Medicine CAR T Therapy Expert Carl June Receives 2022 Keio Medical Science Prize

by Brandon Lausch

The award from Japan’s oldest private university honors outstanding contributions to medicine and life sciences.

Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy Carl June.

Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, has been named a 2022 Keio Medical Science Prize Laureate. He is recognized for his pioneering role in the development of CAR T cell therapy for cancer, which uses modified versions of patients’ own immune cells to attack their cancer.

The Keio Medical Science Prize is an annual award endowed by Keio University, Japan’s oldest private university, which recognizes researchers who have made an outstanding contribution to the fields of medicine or the life sciences. It is the only prize of its kind awarded by a Japanese university, and eight laureates of this prize have later won the Nobel Prize. Now in its 27th year, the prize encourages the expansion of researcher networks throughout the world and contributes to the well-being of humankind.

“Dr. June exemplifies the spirit of curiosity and fortitude that make Penn home to so many ‘firsts’ in science and medicine,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “His work provides hope to cancer patients and their families across the world, and inspiration to our global community of physicians and scientists who are working to develop the next generation of treatments and cures for diseases of all kinds.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

June is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring June’s research here.

Penn Medicine and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Announce Partnership with Costa Rica for CAR T Cell Therapy

Carl June, MD

Carl June, MD, Professor in the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, was quoted in a recent press release  announcing a new international partnership between Penn Medicine (PSOM), the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP), and Costa Rica’s CCSS, or the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (Social Security Program), to develop CAR T research in Costa Rica. June is a world renowned cancer cell therapy pioneer whose research led to the initial development and FDA approval of CAR T cell therapy:

“‘At least 15,000 patients across the world have received CAR T cells, and dozens more clinical trials using this approach are in progress, for almost every major tumor type, but people in many parts of the globe still do not have access to treatment with these transformative therapies,’ said Carl H. June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. “We are honored to work with our colleagues in Costa Rica in hopes of building a path for patients in underserved areas to have the opportunity to benefit from clinical research programs offering this personalized therapy.’”

Read the the announcement in Penn Medicine News.