NYMC Faculty Publications


Engineering Switchable and Programmable Universal CARs for CAR T therapy

First Page


Document Type


Publication Date

July 2019




A traditional chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) has a fixed design, and one type of CAR T cells can only target one antigen epitope. This rigid design limits clinical application and leads to exceptionally high manufacturing cost. New CARs are being engineered with a modular approach so that the antigen recognition domain is split from the signaling domain of a conventional CAR, hence the target antigen can be switched or re-directed more readily without the requirement of re-engineering the CAR T cells. This CAR system can therefore serve as a universal CAR (UniCAR). The UniCAR platform has a modular design that splits the conventional CAR to 2 separate components: (1) a signaling module that binds to a specific epitope on the switching molecule and (2) a switching module with an antigen-binding domain and a switching epitope specifically recognized by the signaling module. A variety of switchable CARs have been engineered. The switchable modular designs include the dimerizing platforms using leucine zippers and biotin-avidin system, and the neo-epitope tagging platform using FITC, 5B9, and PNE. The switch molecule serves as a synapse between the CAR T cells and the target tumor cells. The universal CAR platforms are highly versatile, are easily re-programmable, and therefore have a vast potential for broad application and may significantly lower the cost of CAR T cell therapy. However, the current modular design of the switching molecules relies on adding exogenous sequences/epitopes. These unnatural epitopes can potentially lead to new antigenicity which may lead to generation of blocking antibodies. Furthermore, the generation, preparation, and clinical applications of the switching modules per se may involve additional clinical trials and regulatory examination for safety and efficacy, since repeated administrations of these molecules/"drugs" are anticipated. Thus, these switching molecules and UniCAR CAR T cells may require separate clinical trials and invoke different regulatory processes. This whole field is medically appealing and could present new challenges in the development of novel immunotherapeutic agents.