Synthetic RNA-Based Immunomodulatory Gene Circuits for Cancer Immunotherapy

Cell. 2017 Nov 16;171(5):1138-1150.e15. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.09.049. Epub 2017 Oct 19.


Despite its success in several clinical trials, cancer immunotherapy remains limited by the rarity of targetable tumor-specific antigens, tumor-mediated immune suppression, and toxicity triggered by systemic delivery of potent immunomodulators. Here, we present a proof-of-concept immunomodulatory gene circuit platform that enables tumor-specific expression of immunostimulators, which could potentially overcome these limitations. Our design comprised de novo synthetic cancer-specific promoters and, to enhance specificity, an RNA-based AND gate that generates combinatorial immunomodulatory outputs only when both promoters are mutually active. These outputs included an immunogenic cell-surface protein, a cytokine, a chemokine, and a checkpoint inhibitor antibody. The circuits triggered selective T cell-mediated killing of cancer cells, but not of normal cells, in vitro. In in vivo efficacy assays, lentiviral circuit delivery mediated significant tumor reduction and prolonged mouse survival. Our design could be adapted to drive additional immunomodulators, sense other cancers, and potentially treat other diseases that require precise immunological programming.

Keywords: RNA-based AND gate; biology; cancer detecting circuit; cancer immunotherapy; genetic circuit; ovarian cancer.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Gene Regulatory Networks*
  • Humans
  • Immunomodulation
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Mice
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / immunology
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic / immunology


  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell