T-cell immunotherapy to fight blood cancers

GO-Bio round 8 – Dr. Felix Lorenz, Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine, Berlin-Buch


Beneficiary: Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association

Project Description

Immunotherapy currently holds the most potential for cancer treatment. Doctors use pharmaceuticals that stimulate the activities of the patient's immune system to encourage it to fight against cancer cells in the body. T-cell therapy is one of several promising approaches: it involves extracting highly active immune cells, T cells, from a patient's blood and programming them with a synthetic molecule in the laboratory. Those synthetic molecules are receptors that enable the T-cells to detect tumour cells in a patient's body and fight them. The tumour-specific receptors are genetically engineered so that they can be produced in the T-cells and then infused back into the patient. They circulate through the body, multiply and start to attack cancer cells. CAR-T cell therapies also work on the same principle. They have already been approved in the USA, with the EU to follow suit shortly.

The "Captain T-cell" GO-Bio project, led by molecular biologist Felix Lorenz, does not use a CAR module as tumour-specific receptor, instead opting for a cluster of receptors called classical T-cell receptors (TCR). The team hopes to use these to develop an effective T-cell therapy for untreatable blood cancer patients. The start-up project team at the Max Delbrück Centre Berlin (MDC) initially had acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) in mind, as TCR T-cell treatment represents a promising approach for treating this illness. Each year, up to 20,000 patients die in the USA and Europe from this aggressive blood cancer. A technology platform has been developed to treat AML patients with TCR T-cells, which allows for TCRs specifically designed for the target structures of tumours to be developed and detected.

“Captain T-cell” plans to use the GO-Bio project to develop AML-specific TCRs, which will undergo pre-clinical tests and to prepare a therapeutic product suitable for testing in a clinical phase I/IIa study. MDC plans to out-licence its expertise to Captain T-cell. Alongside setting up a company, the Berlin-based team wish to pursue financing from private capital to conduct the first clinical trial. Going forward, it also aims to develop a TCR T-cell therapy that will achieve approval as an “orphan” drug in 2028. The Captain T-cell team also hopes to develop T-cell immunotherapies for other tumour-related illnesses in the foreseeable future.