After months of looking at dead cells under a microscope, Theo Roth finally glimpsed what he had been hoping to see—flickers of green. His method was working.
"If we can go into the cell and add in new code and instructions, now we can give it whatever new functions we want."
When Roth joined the laboratory of Alex Marson at the University of California, San Francisco in June 2016, he set to work trying to figure out a new way to engineer human T cells, a type of white blood cell that's an important part of the immune system. If he succeeded, the resulting approach could make it easier and faster for scientists to develop and test cell and gene therapies, new treatments that involve genetically reprogramming the body's own cells.
For decades, researchers have been using engineered viruses to bestow human cells with new genetic characteristics. These so-called viral vectors "infect" human cells, transferring whatever new genetic material scientists put into them. The idea is that this new DNA could give T cells a boost to better fight diseases like cancer and HIV.
Several successful clinical trials have used virally-modified human T cells, and in fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year approved two such groundbreaking cancer gene therapies, Kymriah and Yescarta. But the process of genetically manipulating cells with viruses is expensive and time-consuming. In addition, viruses tend to randomly insert DNA with little predictability.
"What Theo wanted to do was to paste in big sequences of DNA at a targeted site without viruses," says Marson, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology. "That would have the benefit of being able to rewrite a specific site in the genome and do it flexibly and quickly without having to make a new virus for every site you want to manipulate."
Scientists have for a while been interested in non-viral engineering methods, but T cells are fragile and notoriously difficult to work with.
Previously, Marson's lab had collaborated with CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and her team at the University of California, Berkeley to use an electrical pulse together with CRISPR components to knock out certain genes. They also found some success with inserting very small pieces of DNA into a targeted site.
But Roth, a 27-year-old graduate student at UCSF pursuing MD and PhD degrees, was determined to figure out how to paste in much bigger sequences of genetic information. Marson says it was an "ambitious" goal. Scientists had tried before, but found that stuffing large chunks of DNA into T cells would quickly kill them.
"If we can go into the cell and add in new code and instructions, now we can give it whatever new functions we want," Roth says. "If you can add in new DNA sequences at the site that you want, then you have a much greater capacity to generate a cell that's going to be therapeutic or curative for a disease."
"He has already made his mark on the field."
So Roth began experimenting with hundreds of different variables a week, trying to find the right conditions to allow him to engineer T cells without the need for viruses. To know if the technique was working, Roth and his colleagues used a green fluorescent protein that would be expressed in cells that had successfully been modified.
"We went from having a lot of dead cells that didn't have any green to having maybe 1 percent of them being green," Roth says. "At that stage we got really excited."
After nearly a year of testing, he and collaborators found a combination of T cell ratios and DNA quantity mixed with CRISPR and zaps of electricity that seemed to work. These electrical pulses, called electroporation, deliver a jolt to cells that makes their membranes temporarily more permeable, allowing the CRISPR system to slip through. Once inside cells, CRISPR seeks out a specific place in the genome and makes a programmed, precise edit.
Roth and his colleagues used the approach to repair a genetic defect in T cells taken from children with a rare autoimmune disease and also to supercharge T cells so that they'd seek out and selectively kill human cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact. In mice transplanted with human melanoma tissue, the edited T cells went to straight to the cancerous cells and attacked them. The findings were published in Nature in July.
Marson and Roth think even a relatively small number of modified T cells could be effective at treating some cancers, infections, and autoimmune diseases.
Roth is now working with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco to engineer cells to treat a variety of cancers and hopefully commercialize his technique. Fred Ramsdell, vice president at the Parker Institute, says he's impressed by Roth's work. "He has already made his mark on the field."
Right now, there's a huge manufacturing backlog for viruses. If researchers want to start a clinical trial to test a new gene or cell therapy, they often have to wait a year to get the viruses they need.
"I think the biggest immediate impact is that it will lower the cost of a starting an early phase clinical trial."
Ramsdell says what Roth's findings allow researchers to do is engineer T cells quickly and more efficiently, cutting the time it takes to make them from several months to just a few weeks. That will allow researchers to develop and test several potential therapies in the lab at once.
"I think the biggest immediate impact is that it will lower the cost of a starting an early phase clinical trial," Roth says.
This isn't the first time Roth's work has been in the spotlight. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, he made significant contributions to traumatic brain injury research by developing a mouse model for observing the brain's cellular response to a concussion. He started the research, which was also published in Nature, the summer before entering college while he was an intern in Dorian McGavern's lab at the National Institutes of Health.
When Roth entered UCSF as a graduate student, his scientific interests shifted.
"It's definitely a big leap" from concussion research, says McGavern, who still keeps in touch with Roth. But he says he's not surprised about Roth's path. "He's absolutely tireless when it comes to the pursuit of science."
Roth says he's optimistic about the potential for gene and cell therapies to cure patients. "I want to try to figure out what one of the next therapies we should put into patients should be."