Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the major form of liver cancer for which there is no effective therapy. Genetic modification with T-cell receptors (TCRs) specific for HCC-associated antigens, such as α-fetoprotein (AFP), can potentially redirect human T cells to specifically recognize and kill HCC tumor cells to achieve antitumor effects. In this study, using lentivector and peptide immunization, we identified a population of cluster of differentiation 8 (CD8) T cells in human leukocyte antigen (HLA)-A2 transgenic AAD mice that recognized AFP158 epitope on human HCC cells. Adoptive transfer of the AFP158-specific mouse CD8 T cells eradicated HepG2 tumor xenografts as large as 2 cm in diameter in immunocompromised nonobese diabetic severe combined immunodeficient gamma knockout (NSG) mice. We then established T-cell hybridoma clones from the AFP158-specific mouse CD8 T cells and identified three sets of paired TCR genes out of five hybridomas. Expression of the murine TCR genes redirected primary human T cells to bind HLA-A2/AFP158 tetramer. TCR gene-engineered human T (TCR-T) cells also specifically recognized HLA-A2+AFP+ HepG2 HCC tumor cells and produced effector cytokines. Importantly, the TCR-T cells could specifically kill HLA-A2+AFP+ HepG2 tumor cells without significant toxicity to normal primary hepatocytes in vitro. Adoptive transfer of the AFP-specific TCR-T cells could eradicate HepG2 tumors in NSG mice. Conclusion: We have identified AFP-specific murine TCR genes that can redirect human T cells to specifically recognize and kill HCC tumor cells, and those AFP158-specific TCRs have a great potential to engineer a patient's autologous T cells to treat HCC tumors. (Hepatology 2018).
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