IL-15 Enhances the Persistence and Function of BCMA-Targeting CAR-T Cells Compared to IL-2 or IL-15/IL-7 by Limiting CAR-T Cell Dysfunction and Differentiation

Cancers (Basel). 2021 Jul 14;13(14):3534. doi: 10.3390/cancers13143534.


Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell immunotherapy has revolutionized the treatment of B-lymphoid malignancies. For multiple myeloma (MM), B-cell maturation antigen (BCMA)-targeted CAR-T cells have achieved outstanding complete response rates, but unfortunately, patients often relapse within a year of receiving the therapy. Increased persistence and reduced dysfunction are crucial features that enhance the durability of CAR-T cell responses. One of the factors that influence CAR-T cell in vivo longevity and loss of function, but which has not yet been extensively studied for BCMA-directed CAR-T cells, are the cytokines used during their production. We here compared the impact of IL-2, IL-15 and a combination of IL-15/IL-7 on the phenotype and function of ARI2h, an academic BCMA-directed CAR-T cell that is currently being administered to MM patients. For this study, flow cytometry, in vitro cytotoxicity assays and analysis of cytokine release were performed. In addition, ARI2h cells expanded with IL-2, IL-15, or IL-15/IL-7 were injected into MM tumor-bearing mice to assess their in vivo efficacy. We demonstrated that each of the cytokine conditions was suitable for the expansion of ARI2h cells, with clear in vitro activity. Strikingly, however, IL-15-produced ARI2h cells had improved in vivo efficacy and persistence. When explored further, it was found that IL-15 drove a less-differentiated ARI2h phenotype, ameliorated parameters related to CAR-T cell dysfunction, and lowered the release of cytokines potentially involved in cytokine release syndrome and MM progression. Moreover, we observed that IL-15 was less potent in inducing T cell senescence and DNA damage accumulation, both of which may contribute to an unfavorable CAR-T cell phenotype. These findings show the superiority of IL-15 to IL-2 and IL-15/IL-7 in the quality of anti-BCMA CAR-T cells, particularly their efficacy and persistence, and as such, could improve the duration of responses if applied to the clinical production of CAR-T cells for patients.

Keywords: BCMA; CAR-T cells; IL-15; IL-2; IL-7; multiple myeloma; senescence.