Theses Doctoral

Engineered probiotics for the screening and treatment of colorectal cancer

Gurbatri, Candice Robyn

Bioengineered probiotics enable new opportunities to improve colorectal cancer (CRC) prevention, screening, and treatment strategies. With CRC incidence on the rise in younger populations, there is an increased need to engineer technologies that enhance patient access to diagnostic exams and disease management. This dissertation presents the development of an orally-delivered probiotic to screen for and treat early CRC lesions with a particular emphasis on translatability factors including: safety of probiotic use, exploration of oral delivery, and testing in clinically relevant models. At the interface of immunology, synthetic biology, and the microbiome fields is the overarching concept that microbes play a critical role in the tumor microenvironment (TME). The innate ability of bacteria to seek out tumor-specific signatures and proliferate within their necrotic cores due to reduced immune surveillance enables the precise immunoengineering of the local TME. Here, we will design, characterize, and test a probiotic encoded with a lysis mechanism to aid in biocontainment and maximize the release of recombinantly-produced diagnostic and immunotherapeutic cargo. In this lysis circuit, bacteria grow to a critical density within tumors and synchronously lyse, locally releasing their payload. A small fraction of bacteria remains to reseed the population and the cycle continues, resulting in repeated and sustained drug delivery.

Drawing from advancements in immunology, we engineered bacteria to produce immune checkpoint inhibitors. Monoclonal antibodies targeting immune checkpoints have revolutionized cancer therapy, but only work in a subset of patients and can lead to a multitude of toxicities, suggesting the need for more targeted delivery systems. Due to their preferential colonization of tumors, bacteria are a natural chassis for the localized delivery of such therapeutics. Therefore, we engineered a commercially available probiotic, E.coli Nissle 1917 (EcN), for the controlled production and intratumoral release of nanobodies targeting programmed cell death protein – ligand 1 (PD-L1) and cytotoxic T- lymphocyte-associated protein-4 (CTLA-4) using the described lysing release mechanism. We demonstrate that a single injection of this engineered probiotic enhanced therapeutic response compared to analogous clinically-relevant antibodies, resulting in tumor regression in syngeneic mouse models. In an effort to create a more effective therapeutic for poorly immunogenic cancers, we utilized the modularity of our platform to slow tumor growth in mouse models of established CRC by combining it with a probiotically-produced cytokine, granulocyte-macrophage colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF).

We sought to expand upon the relevance of this approach for early-stage CRC screening and treatment, by characterizing the platform in CRC precancerous lesions, or adenomas. When orally-delivered, EcN robustly colonized adenomas in genetically-engineered and orthotopic murine models of CRC, and human CRC patients. Leveraging adenoma-specific colonization, we probed for EcN presence in fecal matter, demonstrating its utility as a non-invasive screen for adenomas. For more accessible testing, we engineered EcN to produce salicylate and showed that it could be detected in the urine of tumor-bearing mice for days after oral delivery of the probiotic. Moreover, we demonstrated that the therapeutic effectiveness of our previously engineered therapeutic strain, producing PD-L1, CTLA-4 and GM-CSF, was maintained when delivered orally, ultimately resulting in significant adenoma reduction.

Altogether, this dissertation aims to highlight the potential for engineered EcN to be used as a safe, orally-deliverable screening and therapeutic platform for early-stage CRC disease. While we have chosen to focus on CRC here, we will conclude by discussing efforts to adapt this platform to work in combination with other cellular therapies and therapeutic indications, ultimately engineering a platform to impact a broader patient population.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Biomedical Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Danino, Tal
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 25, 2022