T cell circuits that sense antigen density with an ultrasensitive threshold

Science. 2021 Mar 12;371(6534):1166-1171. doi: 10.1126/science.abc1855. Epub 2021 Feb 25.


Overexpressed tumor-associated antigens [for example, epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)] are attractive targets for therapeutic T cells, but toxic "off-tumor" cross-reaction with normal tissues that express low levels of target antigen can occur with chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cells. Inspired by natural ultrasensitive response circuits, we engineered a two-step positive-feedback circuit that allows human cytotoxic T cells to discriminate targets on the basis of a sigmoidal antigen-density threshold. In this circuit, a low-affinity synthetic Notch receptor for HER2 controls the expression of a high-affinity CAR for HER2. Increasing HER2 density thus has cooperative effects on T cells-it increases both CAR expression and activation-leading to a sigmoidal response. T cells with this circuit show sharp discrimination between target cells expressing normal amounts of HER2 and cancer cells expressing 100 times as much HER2, both in vitro and in vivo.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Neoplasm / immunology
  • Cell Engineering*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy, Adoptive
  • K562 Cells
  • Mice
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / genetics
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / immunology
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / metabolism
  • Receptors, Artificial / metabolism
  • Receptors, Chimeric Antigen / genetics
  • Receptors, Chimeric Antigen / immunology*
  • Receptors, Chimeric Antigen / metabolism
  • Receptors, Notch / genetics
  • Receptors, Notch / metabolism
  • Spheroids, Cellular
  • T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic / metabolism*
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Antigens, Neoplasm
  • Receptors, Artificial
  • Receptors, Chimeric Antigen
  • Receptors, Notch
  • ERBB2 protein, human
  • Receptor, ErbB-2