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Development of a modified Vaccinia virus expressing an immunostimulatory molecule

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Title: Development of a modified Vaccinia virus expressing an immunostimulatory molecule
Author(s): Juntunen, Maiju
Contributor: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Pharmacy
Degree program: Master’s Programme in Pharmaceutical Research, Development and Safety
Specialisation: Biopharmaceutics
Language: English
Acceptance year: 2020
Cancer immunotherapy refers to therapy strategies that utilise the mechanisms of the immune system to treat cancer patients. The benefits of the approach include the possibility for specific targeting and utilisation of the host immune system. The treatment methods include cancer vaccines, oncolytic viruses (OVs), cell-based immunotherapies and antibodies. The interplay between the cancer and the immune system has been observed crucial for the progress of the cancer and the success of immunotherapies. An immune inflamed tumour microenvironment has been observed beneficial for the success of several therapy methods. Many immunotherapy methods rely on detecting tumour specific antigens that are used to guide the therapy agent to the target site. This strategy poses challenges when considering tumour immune evasion mechanisms, which can cause downregulation of target antigens, and heterogeneity of tumour cells and patients. OVs have the advantage of not requiring predetermined target structures to exert their effect to the tumour cells. They cause direct tumour cell lysis and induce immune responses, and may be modified to express additional genes, including immunostimulatory agents. However, virus-related immunosuppressive mechanisms and a rapid viral clearance may limit their effects. A Western Reserve (WR) Vaccinia virus (VACV) is a highly oncolytic virus strain but the virus has been observed to suppress the function of the cyclic guanosine monophosphate adenosine monophosphate synthase – stimulator of interferon genes (cGAS STING) innate immune pathway which has been shown to have a significant role in anti-tumour immune responses. The aim of this study was to create a WR VACV encoding a dominantly active (D A) STING and to determine whether the virus is capable of activating the cGAS STING pathway. The effects were compared to a corresponding virus vvdd tdTomato that does not have the STING encoding gene. The pathogenicity of viruses was controlled by a double deletion of the thymidine kinase and vaccinia growth factor genes which restricts the virus replication to tumour cells. Transgene fragments were cloned from template plasmids by polymerase chain reactions (PCRs) and joined together in a Gibson Assembly (GA) reaction to form a STING-P2A-eGFP gene insert. The insert was attached to a shuttle vector pSC65-tdTomato by restriction enzyme digestion, ligation and transformation in Escherichia coli. The correct transgene plasmid construct was verified by Sanger sequencing and PCRs. The transgene was inserted to a modified WR VACV vvdd-tdTomato-hDAI by a homologous recombination. The newly created VVdd STING-P2A-eGFP virus was purified by plaque purification. The STING protein expression was studied by an immunocytochemistry (ICC) assay. The immune signalling pathway activation was examined by testing nuclear factor kappa-light chain-enhancer of activated B cells (NF-κB) activation in RAW-Blue cells and dendritic cell activation and maturation in JAWS II cells. The cell viability after iinfection was studied with four cell lines; A549, B16-F10, HEK293 and MB49. The D-A STING expressing virus was produced successfully. The ICC experiment verified the capability of the VVdd STING-P2A eGFP to produce the STING protein in the infected cells. The preliminary findings indicate that the VVdd STING-P2A-eGFP virus activates the NF-κB signalling in the RAW-Blue cells and that the activation is dependent on the STING expression. The activation level is relative to the infection concentration at MOI range 0,001 to 0,1. The findings suggest that the VVdd-STING-eGFP virus can induce innate immune signalling via the STING pathway. The reference virus did not activate the signalling. The in vitro experiments also indicated that the STING virus may induce DC activation and maturation. We observed a trend of CD86 and CD40 expression upregulation on the JAWS II DCs. The effects to the cell viability were inconclusive. More studies should be conducted to verify the results. The effects of the virus should be studied in more advanced cancer models that take into account the complexity of the immune system. These preliminary results indicate the that the VVdd-STING-P2A-eGFP virus could stimulate the immune signalling through the STING pathway.
Keyword(s): cancer immunotherapy immunovirotherapy oncolytic virus vaccinia virus STING stimulator of interferon genes

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