Nicolas Thiault, Ph.D.

What if there is a new immune cell that could be engineered to safely kill tumor cells and cure cancer?

Cancer is a leading cause of death but impressive successes of immunotherapies have brought hope and greatly enhanced the quality and life expectancy for cancer patients. A very promising immunotherapy uses engineered immune-cells that express an artificial receptor that senses cancer cells and signals the immune cell to kill them.

Currently, these engineered immune-cells originate in the patients’ own blood to minimize attacks on patients’ own healthy cells. However, this requires a custom-made manufacturing process for each individual, which is extremely costly and time-consuming. In addition, many patients’ immune cells function sub-optimally or are dysfunctional due to previous heavy anti-cancer treatments (i.e radiotherapy). The advanced use of donor cells from healthy people allows for cheaper, scaled-up production of readily available and more effective engineered immune-cells. But unfortunately, foreign immune-cells may also aggressively attack the patients’ healthy cells, or, because they are foreign, they may be rapidly eliminated by the patients’ immune system. Thus, there is a critical need for off-the-shelf and highly effective engineered anti-tumor immune-cells, that will persist in the patient and kill tumor cells but leave healthy tissues intact.

As part of my research I believe I’ve discovered the perfect candidate. Although this immune cell had been known for decades, it was continually overlooked and left uncharacterized. I fully characterized this cell, determined its function and found it to be a potent killer-cell that does not operate by distinguishing self from non-self. This implies that it might not attack the healthy cells of cancer patients. Based on my findings, I predict that this cell might be the ideal donor immune-cell to be engineered for an effective and safe anti-tumor therapy. SPARK funding will allow me to provide proof-of-concept for my hypothesis using a straight forward experimental approach and a well-established mouse tumor model.

SPARKing Impact: It is my hope that this pilot study will launch my research career and result in expanded fundamental and translational studies that draw the attention and appreciation for these incredible immune-cells to ultimately provide a cure for all cancers.