Modified viruses that have been engineered to serve as gene delivery vehicles (‘vectors”) can be used to infect tumor cells and alter the tumor cell to make anti-tumor proteins. We have developed a type of replication-competent virus that efficiently infects rapidly dividing cancer cells, but not normal brain cells. This virus is currently being tested clinically in patients with malignant brain tumors. However, to administer therapeutic virus into the brain, the virus is injected right into the center of the tumor, or in around the margins of the cavity after surgical removal of most of the tumor. Yet, human brain tumors are often found as diffusely spreading foci in the brain and may be difficult to eliminate by locally-administered replication-competent retrovirus (RCR) vectors alone. In this project, we propose to use a type of adult stem cell, called a “mesenchymal stem cell” (MSC), as a delivery system for the RCR vectors. Human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs) have been shown to have natural tumor-homing abilities, and can migrate to tumor foci and penetrate through into the interior of tumor masses.
Through this project, we have been able to establish and optimize manufacturing methods to engineer hMSCs into “aircraft carriers” that release our tumor-selective RCR vectors, which we then confirmed can efficiently spread a non-therapeutic marker gene to brain tumor cells. We have further confirmed that the use of hMSCs as a cellular delivery system for RCR vectors achieves more rapid spread of the vectors through the tumor mass, as compared to injecting the virus by itself, both in tumor models implanted under the skin as well as implanted in the brain. We have also confirmed that hMSC delivery of RCR vectors does not result in unwanted spread of virus to normal tissues outside the brain. We have now employed this stem cell-based RCR vector platform to deliver a therapeutic anti-tumor ‘suicide’ gene, and we have shown that stem cell-mediated vector delivery results in longer survival compared to delivery of the virus by itself. We have also initiated discussions with the UC Davis Stem Cell Institute to develop clinical grade manufacturing processes for hMSC-based RCR vector producer cells, and with a San Diego-based biotech partner, Tocagen Inc., toward developing a clinical trial to test this strategy in brain tumor patients in the near future.