Newswise — PHILADELPHIA—A new technology for cellular immunotherapy developed by Abramson Cancer Center researchers at Penn Medicine showed promising anti-tumor activity in the lab against hard-to-treat cancers driven by the once-considered “undruggable” KRAS mutation, including lung, colorectal, and pancreatic. 

The study, published online in Nature Communicationssuccessfully demonstrated using human cells that a T-cell receptor, or TCR, therapy could be designed to mobilize an immune system attack on mutated KRAS solid tumors and shrink them. The preclinical work has laid the groundwork for the first-in-human clinical trial now in the planning stages for the treatment of advanced pancreatic cancer in patients whose tumors harbor specific KRAS mutations and express a specific type of human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, the therapy is built to recognize. 

“We’ve shown that targeting mutant KRAS immunologically is feasible and potentially generalizable for a group of patients with lung, colorectal and pancreatic tumors,” said senior author Beatriz M. Carreno, PhD, an associate professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, the Abramson Cancer Center, and Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Penn.  “We look forward to taking this research to the next level and closer to clinical study.” 

KRAS mutations are among the most prevalent mutations observed in cancers and have been shown to drive tumor development and growth. Only recently have targeted therapies been shown to successfully treat a specific KRAS mutation found most commonly in lung cancer; however, no treatments currently exist for the majority of other KRAS mutations more prevalent in other tumor types. Immunological targeting of mutant KRAS represents an alternative treatment approach but has been less studied and understood.  

Using a multiomics approach, the Penn team identified specific neoantigens associated with mutations at the G12 site on the KRAS gene. Neoantigens are protein fragments that form on the cancer cell surface when certain mutations occur in tumor DNA. More than 75 percent of the alterations in the KRAS protein occur at G12, making it an ideal site to target with therapies.  

Armed with this knowledge, the researchers tested a TCR therapy directed toward specific KRAS G12 mutations present in conjunction with particular HLA types highly prevalent among patients. They showed in a mouse tumor model that it was effective at attacking and eliminating tumor cells. HLAs are an important part of the immune system because they encode cell surface molecules that present specific neoantigens to the T-cell receptors on T cells.  

In other words, HLAs are key genetic codes needed for these engineered T cells to find and attack tumors. 

The research further supports the use of neoantigens for targeting tumor cells, for both cellular therapy and cancer vaccines, which have been underway at Penn Medicine and elsewhere.  

Importantly, the neoantigen and HLA information from this latest study is being used to develop TCR therapies to treat solid tumors, as well as new cancer vaccines. Based off these latest findings, the team initiated a vaccine clinical trial led by Mark O’Hara, MD, an assistant professor of Hematology-Oncology at Penn and co-author on the study, in pancreatic cancer targeting mutated KRAS.  

The first clinical trial for the TCR therapy is projected to launch as soon as 2022, depending on regulatory approval, at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center for patients with advanced pancreatic cancer who have both the KRAS mutation and specific HLA types identified in this latest study—which could represent up to 10 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer. The study opens the door, however, to expand the patient population as researchers continue to discover more about the neoantigens derived from regions of the KRAS gene and other mutated oncogenes implicated in driving cancer. 

“We provide evidence that this oncogenic protein is a very promising clinical target of immune-based therapies,” said lead author Adham Bear, MD, PhD, an instructor in the division of Hematology-Oncology at Penn and member of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Penn. “The goal, now that we have identified these neoantigens and T cell receptors, is to translate these findings and apply them to develop new therapies at Penn.” 

Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, director of the Abramson Cancer Center, and Gerald P. Linette, MD, PhD, a professor of Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, serve as co-authors. 

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R01 CA204261, P30 CA016520, CA196539 and CA232568), The Stand Up to Cancer/Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Collective, the Penn Institute for Immunology, and the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. 



Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.9 billion enterprise. 

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $496 million awarded in the 2020 fiscal year.  

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center—which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report—Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others. 

Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 44,000 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live. 

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2020, Penn Medicine provided more than $563 million to benefit our community. 

Journal Link: Nature Communications