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Combination nonviral interleukin-2 gene immunotherapy for head and neck cancer: from bench top to bedside

Bert W O'Malley, Daqing Li, Shelly J McQuone, Robert Ralston
Laryngoscope 2005, 115 (3): 391-404
15744147

OBJECTIVE/HYPOTHESIS: Intralesional delivery of cytokine genes has emerged as a promising therapeutic strategy for the treatment of cancer. In addition to the therapeutic effect of the delivered cytokine gene, the components of the gene delivery system also have been shown to induce beneficial immune responses. On the basis of these principles, we hypothesized that a molecular therapy could be developed that would provide synergistic antitumor activity by way of intralesional expression of interleukin (IL)-2 from a recombinant plasmid combined with induction of endogenous interferon (IFN)-gamma and IL-12 cytokines by immunostimulatory DNA. Our objective in these studies was to create and optimize a novel formulation of cationic lipid and DNA that generates local production of IL-2 protein within a targeted tumor environment with concomitant induction of the antitumor cytokines IFN-gamma and IL-12.

STUDY DESIGN: Prospective laboratory drug development plan that would produce human clinical trials.

MATERIALS AND METHODS: Engineered bacterial plasmids containing a cytomegalovirus promoter (CMV)-IL-2 expression cassette were specifically formulated with cationic lipids and optimized for antitumor effect in a floor of mouth murine tumor model. The treated tumors were assayed for local expression of IL-2 and concurrent expression of secondary cytokines IFN-gamma and IL-12. Established tumors in C3H/HeJ mice were treated with various IL-2 gene formulations, and clinical and immunologic responses were evaluated. Immunologic studies were performed and included cytolytic T-cell assays and cytokine expression profiles. For human clinical trials, a phase I 10 patient formulated IL-2 gene therapy study was completed. Subsequently, two large scale, phase II multi-institutional and multi-international studies were initiated comparing non-viral IL-2 gene therapy to palliative methotrexate chemotherapy or in combination with cisplatin.

RESULTS: In the preclinical stage, maximum tumor inhibition in animal models was obtained using IL-2 plasmid formulated with 1,2-dioleyloxypropyl-3-trimethyl ammonium chloride (DOTMA):cholesterol (1:1 mol:mol) at a plasmid:lipid charge ratio of 1:0.5 (-/+). Cationic lipid formulated IL-2 plasmid significantly inhibited tumor growth compared with formulated control plasmid (P < .01) or vehicle (lactose; P < .01). Consistent with previously reported studies of the immunostimulatory activity of DNA of bacterial origin, treatment of tumors with control plasmid in cationic lipid formulation induced production of endogenous IFN-gamma and IL-12 but not IL-2. Treatment of tumors with formulated IL-2 plasmid produced IL-2 protein levels that were 5-fold over background and increased IFN-gamma by 32-fold (P < .001) and IL-12 by 5.5-fold (P < .001) compared with control plasmid formulations. The phase I human trial demonstrated dose escalation safety, which was its primary objective, and there was one anecdotal reduction in tumor size. The phase II studies have been initiated and focus on either comparing the novel nonviral IL-2 gene immunotherapy formulation alone to methotrexate or comparing IL-2 gene therapy in combination with cisplatin in recurrent or unresectable patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.

CONCLUSIONS: The preclinical data provided proof of principle for matching a delivered IL-2 transgene with an immunostimulatory nonviral formulation to enhance intralesional production of therapeutic cytokines for the maximization of antitumor response. Human clinical trials have demonstrated this novel therapy to be safe in the human clinical setting. Phase II trials have been initiated to assess efficacy and feasibility as a single or combination therapy for head and neck cancer.

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