Brain Tumor Immunotherapy and Biology

Glioblastoma (GBM) is the most common fatal brain tumor in adults which resists the standard of care therapy including chemotherapy, radiation and surgical resection.

The tumor microenvironment (TME) consisting of brain-resident microglia, macrophages, and T-cells plays a crucial role in inducing therapy resistance.

Therefore, for having effective therapeutic approaches to combat this deadly disease, targeting both tumor cell population as well as TME modulation is required.

The overall objective of our research program is to decipher novel targets in the tumor microenvironment, especially microglia and GBM-associated macrophages with translational potential.

On the mid-to long term, we aim for developing clinical trials combining microglia/macrophage targeting with tumor targeting in various brain tumor entities.

Our main projects

  1. Genetic and pharmacological microglia modulation in syngeneic brain tumor models
  2. Combinatorial targeting of tumor and microglia population using novel immunotherapeutics
  3. Assessment of glioblastoma region-specific microglia heterogeneity
  4. Preclinical and clinical development of novel CAR-T cells and CAR-macrophages

Thanks to our direct connection to the Neurosurgery Department of the University Hospital Basel (head: Prof. Luigi Mariani), we are able to obtain, process and analyze tumor samples. This has allowed us to generate a vast biorepository of clinically annotated glioma specimens bank as well as patient-derived xenograft models for testing the efficacy of therapeutic/immunotherapeutic modalities. We also utilize syngeneic GBM mouse models. Our strong national and international collaborations allows us to reach our goal to find more effective treatment strategies against GBM. Our work is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant PP00P3_176974) and the Department of Surgery.


 Our publications

Severe Neuro-COVID is associated with peripheral immune signatures, autoimmunity and neurodegeneration: a prospective cross-sectional study

Nature Communications, 2022 –

Growing evidence links COVID-19 with acute and long-term neurological dysfunction. However, the pathophysiological mechanisms resulting in central nervous system involvement remain unclear, posing both diagnostic and therapeutic challenges. Here we show outcomes of a cross-sectional clinical study (NCT04472013) including clinical and imaging data and corresponding multidimensional characterization of immune mediators in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and plasma of patients belonging to different Neuro-COVID severity classes. The most prominent signs of severe Neuro-COVID are blood-brain barrier (BBB) impairment, elevated microglia activation markers and a polyclonal B cell response targeting self-antigens and non-self-antigens. COVID-19 patients show decreased regional brain volumes associating with specific CSF parameters, however, COVID-19 patients characterized by plasma cytokine storm are presenting with a non-inflammatory CSF profile. Post-acute COVID-19 syndrome strongly associates with a distinctive set of CSF and plasma mediators. Collectively, we identify several potentially actionable targets to prevent or intervene with the neurological consequences of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Immunotherapy of glioblastoma explants induces interferon-γ responses and spatial immune cell rearrangements in tumor center, but not periphery

Science Advances, 2022 – DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abn9440

A patient-tailored, ex vivo drug response platform for glioblastoma (GBM) would facilitate therapy planning, provide insights into treatment-induced mechanisms in the immune tumor microenvironment (iTME), and enable the discovery of biomarkers of response. We cultured regionally annotated GBM explants in perfusion bioreactors to assess iTME responses to immunotherapy. Explants were treated with anti-CD47, anti–PD-1, or their combination, and analyzed by multiplexed microscopy [CO-Detection by indEXing (CODEX)], enabling the spatially resolved identification of >850,000 single cells, accompanied by explant secretome interrogation. Center and periphery explants differed in their cell type and soluble factor composition, and responses to immunotherapy. A subset of explants displayed increased interferon-γ levels, which correlated with shifts in immune cell composition within specified tissue compartments. Our study demonstrates that ex vivo immunotherapy of GBM explants enables an active antitumoral immune response within the tumor center and provides a framework for multidimensional personalized assessment of tumor response to immunotherapy.

Microglia-Centered Combinatorial Strategies Against Glioblastoma

Frontiers Immunology, 2020 –

Tumor-associated microglia (MG) and macrophages (MΦ) are important components of the glioblastoma (GBM) immune tumor microenvironment (iTME). From the recent advances in understanding how MG and GBM cells evolve and interact during tumorigenesis, we emphasize the cooperation of MG with other immune cell types of the GBM-iTME, mainly MΦ and T cells. We provide a comprehensive overview of current immunotherapeutic clinical trials and approaches for the treatment of GBM, which in general, underestimate the counteracting contribution of immunosuppressive MG as a main factor for treatment failure. Furthermore, we summarize new developments and strategies in MG reprogramming/re-education in the GBM context, with a focus on ways to boost MG-mediated tumor cell phagocytosis and associated experimental models and methods. This ultimately converges in our proposal of novel combinatorial regimens that locally modulate MG as a central paradigm, and therefore may lead to additional, long-lasting, and effective tumoricidal responses.

Microglia are effector cells of CD47-SIRPα antiphagocytic axis disruption against glioblastoma

PNAS, 2019 –

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is a highly aggressive malignant brain tumor with fatal outcome. Tumor-associated macrophages and microglia (TAMs) have been found to be major tumor-promoting immune cells in the tumor microenvironment. Hence, modulation and reeducation of tumor-associated macrophages and microglia in GBM is considered a promising antitumor strategy. Resident microglia and invading macrophages have been shown to have distinct origin and function. Whereas yolk sac-derived microglia reside in the brain, blood-derived monocytes invade the central nervous system only under pathological conditions like tumor formation. We recently showed that disruption of the SIRPα-CD47 signaling axis is efficacious against various brain tumors including GBM primarily by inducing tumor phagocytosis. However, most effects are attributed to macrophages recruited from the periphery but the role of the brain resident microglia is unknown. Here, we sought to utilize a model to distinguish resident microglia and peripheral macrophages within the GBM-TAM pool, using orthotopically xenografted, immunodeficient, and syngeneic mouse models with genetically color-coded macrophages (Ccr2RFP) and microglia (Cx3cr1GFP). We show that even in the absence of phagocytizing macrophages (Ccr2RFP/RFP), microglia are effector cells of tumor cell phagocytosis in response to anti-CD47 blockade. Additionally, macrophages and microglia show distinct morphological and transcriptional changes. Importantly, the transcriptional profile of microglia shows less of an inflammatory response which makes them a promising target for clinical applications.