Implantable synthetic cytokine converter cells with AND-gate logic treat experimental psoriasis

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Science Translational Medicine  16 Dec 2015:
Vol. 7, Issue 318, pp. 318ra201
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aac4964

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A psoriatic switch

Taking pills may go the way of the horse and buggy, the rotary phone, and the Walkman, at least if synthetic biology has anything to say about it. Schukur et al. designed a circuit that would automatically sense the presence of two disease-causing molecules, called cytokines, in the body and respond by triggering the production of two other cytokines that would treat the disease. This circuit was genetically engineered in a mammalian cell; in turn, the cell was implanted in mice with psoriasis—an inflammatory skin condition that has no cure. When levels of the proinflammatory cytokines TNF and IL22 peaked in the body, the synthetic circuit kicked into gear, converting these cytokine signals into an anti-inflammatory cellular output, consisting of IL4 and IL10, which then attenuated disease. The “cytokine converter” cells not only prevented psoriasis flare-ups, as they’re called, but also treated acute (established) psoriasis, returning skin to normal in mice. In demonstrating that the converter cells were responsive to blood from psoriasis patients, the authors suggest that synthetic biology may be ready to autonomously flip therapeutic switches in people and later take on other diseases with defined disease indicators.


Psoriasis is a chronic inflammatory skin disease characterized by a relapsing-remitting disease course and correlated with increased expression of proinflammatory cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin 22 (IL22). Psoriasis is hard to treat because of the unpredictable and asymptomatic flare-up, which limits handling of skin lesions to symptomatic treatment. Synthetic biology–based gene circuits are uniquely suited for the treatment of diseases with complex dynamics, such as psoriasis, because they can autonomously couple the detection of disease biomarkers with the production of therapeutic proteins. We designed a mammalian cell synthetic cytokine converter that quantifies psoriasis-associated TNF and IL22 levels using serially linked receptor-based synthetic signaling cascades, processes the levels of these proinflammatory cytokines with AND-gate logic, and triggers the corresponding expression of therapeutic levels of the anti-inflammatory/psoriatic cytokines IL4 and IL10, which have been shown to be immunomodulatory in patients. Implants of microencapsulated cytokine converter transgenic designer cells were insensitive to simulated bacterial and viral infections as well as psoriatic-unrelated inflammation. The designer cells specifically prevented the onset of psoriatic flares, stopped acute psoriasis, improved psoriatic skin lesions and restored normal skin-tissue morphology in mice. The antipsoriatic designer cells were equally responsive to blood samples from psoriasis patients, suggesting that the synthetic cytokine converter captures the clinically relevant cytokine range. Implanted designer cells that dynamically interface with the patient’s metabolism by detecting specific disease metabolites or biomarkers, processing their blood levels with synthetic circuits in real time, and coordinating immediate production and systemic delivery of protein therapeutics may advance personalized gene- and cell-based therapies.

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