Molecular Rules Underpinning Enhanced Affinity Binding of Human T Cell Receptors Engineered for Immunotherapy

Mol Ther Oncolytics. 2020 Jul 31;18:443-456. doi: 10.1016/j.omto.2020.07.008. eCollection 2020 Sep 25.


Immuno-oncology approaches that utilize T cell receptors (TCRs) are becoming highly attractive because of their potential to target virtually all cellular proteins, including cancer-specific epitopes, via the recognition of peptide-human leukocyte antigen (pHLA) complexes presented at the cell surface. However, because natural TCRs generally recognize cancer-derived pHLAs with very weak affinities, efforts have been made to enhance their binding strength, in some cases by several million-fold. In this study, we investigated the mechanisms underpinning human TCR affinity enhancement by comparing the crystal structures of engineered enhanced affinity TCRs with those of their wild-type progenitors. Additionally, we performed molecular dynamics simulations to better understand the energetic mechanisms driving the affinity enhancements. These data demonstrate that supra-physiological binding affinities can be achieved without altering native TCR-pHLA binding modes via relatively subtle modifications to the interface contacts, often driven through the addition of buried hydrophobic residues. Individual energetic components of the TCR-pHLA interaction governing affinity enhancements were distinct and highly variable for each TCR, often resulting from additive, or knock-on, effects beyond the mutated residues. This comprehensive analysis of affinity-enhanced TCRs has important implications for the future rational design of engineered TCRs as efficacious and safe drugs for cancer treatment.

Keywords: MD; T cell receptor; T cells; TCR; X-ray crystallography; cancer immunotherapy; molecular dynamics; pHLA; peptide-human leukocyte antigen; simulations.