The Research Laboratory of Cliona Rooney, PhD

About the Research Laboratory of Cliona Rooney, PhDCliona Rooney. Ph.D.

My laboratory is interested in improving immunotherapies for virus-associated diseases and malignancies using cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs).

Our first trial of EBV-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) for prophylaxis and treatment of EBV-associated lymphoproliferative disease after stem cell transplantation (SCT) demonstrated the safety and efficacy of antigen-specific T cells for therapy of cancer.

We are now extending this approach to CMV and adenovirus infections post SCT, and to patients with other EBV-associated diseases who might benefit from immune intervention. In collaboration with Dr’s. Malcolm Brenner, Helen Heslop, Catherine Bollard, Barbara Savoldo and Stephen Gottschalk, I have initiated phase I clinical studies for treatment of patients with EBV-positive Hodgkin Disease, Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma, Chronic Active EBV Infection and high virus load or PTLD following solid organ transplantation. While EBV-specific CTLs provided significant clinical benefits for these conditions, it is clear that improvements must be made. Therefore, a major goal is to understand the reasons for CTL failure in different disease states and to develop new strategies to overcome these problems.

We have developed ways to tailor CTL specificity to the tumor antigens expressed in a particular disease. For example, LMP2 antigen-specific CTL are now being used to treat EBV-positive Hodgkin tumors in which EBV gene expression pattern is highly restricted.

We have also developed ways to genetically modify the CTL to make them resistant to tumor immune evasion strategies. For example, EBV-specific CTL lines transduced with a retrovirus vector expressing a dominant-negative TGF-b receptor, retain their cytotoxic specificity and proliferative characteristics, but become completely resistant to the potent inhibitory effects of TGF-b. To increase the safety of such transgenes, in collaboration with David Spencer, we have engineered a suicide gene consisting of a modified caspase 9 molecule fused to a modified FK binding domain. This construct can be expressed in T cells with low basal toxicity and high specific activity and when expressed from the same retrovirus vector as the therapeutic transgene, transmits death signals in the presence of a small molecule inducer of dimerization. We are currently testing the safety and efficacy of gene-modified T cells in murine models using bioluminescent imaging techniques to track the persistence and expansion of infused T cells and the growth or regression of tumors.

Other clinical strategies aim to modify the patient environment to improve the persistence, expansion and function of infused T cells. Treatment with lytic T cell specific antibodies should reduce the inhibitory effect of tumor-specific T regulatory cells and reduce homeostatic restraints on the expansion of infused T cells. Lymphodepletion using CD45 antibodies prior to CTL infusion is being evaluated in patients with relapsed nasopharyngeal carcinoma and Hodgkins disease.

More recently, we have developed interests in the possibility of generating antigen-specific T regulatory cells for the treatment of autoimmune disease. We found that T cells expressing antigen are potent inducers of T regs, which may be exploited for the induction of T cells.

Dr. Cliona Rooney’s lab is part of the Cell and Gene Therapy research laboratories.

Laboratory Members

Principal Investigator
Cliona Rooney, PhD

Assistant Professor
Aaron Foster, PhD
Dr. Aaron Foster is interested in the function and efficacy of genetically-modified anti-tumor T cells in xenogeneic SCID mice and in immunocompetent mice

Assistant Professor
Ann Leen, PhD
Production of T cells specific for non-viral tumor antigens using optimized antigen-presenting cells. Clinical trial of adenovirus-specific CTL infused after allogeneic stem cell transplantation

Postdoctoral Associate
Jiali Sun, MD, PhD
Production of multi-virus-specific T cell lines for the broad spectrum protection of stem cell recipinets at high risk for infection. Characterization of the signaling requirements for optimal T cell induction

Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Anjum Suturwala
Optimization of dendritic cells using pathogen pattern recognition (PPR) receptor ligands, to overcome tolerance and anergy to tumor antigens induced in cancer patients

CTLs Laboratory Manager
Helen Huls
Oversees the running of the research laboratory and the training of technicinas both in the research laboratory and the GMP facility. Develops and writes standard operating procedures for clinical grade CTL production in the GMP facility. Oversees CTL production and infusion

Research Assistant
Teresita Lopez
Grows clinical grade CTL products in the GMP facility, using different types of antigen presenting cells. Performs T cell transductions with retrovirus and adenovirus vector transduction into dendritic cells and LCLs.

Research Assistant
Joyce Ku
Grows Cell lines in GMP facility, maintains equipment, manufacturing rooms and records. Prepares media formulations

Research Technician
Rong Cai
Processes follow-up blood samples from patients on CTL infusion and vaccine protocols to determine the function and persistence of infused T cells

Research Technician II
Mai T. Huynh


Center for Cell and Gene Therapy (CAGT)
Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology
Department of Immunology