This “Absolutely Tireless” Researcher Made an Important Breakthrough for Cancer Patients

Theo Roth.

(Photo credit: Noah Berger/UCSF)

After months of looking at dead cells under a microscope, Theo Roth finally glimpsed what he had been hoping to see—flickers of green. His method was working.

"If we can go into the cell and add in new code and instructions, now we can give it whatever new functions we want."

When Roth joined the laboratory of Alex Marson at the University of California, San Francisco in June 2016, he set to work trying to figure out a new way to engineer human T cells, a type of white blood cell that's an important part of the immune system. If he succeeded, the resulting approach could make it easier and faster for scientists to develop and test cell and gene therapies, new treatments that involve genetically reprogramming the body's own cells.

For decades, researchers have been using engineered viruses to bestow human cells with new genetic characteristics. These so-called viral vectors "infect" human cells, transferring whatever new genetic material scientists put into them. The idea is that this new DNA could give T cells a boost to better fight diseases like cancer and HIV.

Several successful clinical trials have used virally-modified human T cells, and in fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year approved two such groundbreaking cancer gene therapies, Kymriah and Yescarta. But the process of genetically manipulating cells with viruses is expensive and time-consuming. In addition, viruses tend to randomly insert DNA with little predictability.

"What Theo wanted to do was to paste in big sequences of DNA at a targeted site without viruses," says Marson, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology. "That would have the benefit of being able to rewrite a specific site in the genome and do it flexibly and quickly without having to make a new virus for every site you want to manipulate."

Scientists have for a while been interested in non-viral engineering methods, but T cells are fragile and notoriously difficult to work with.

Previously, Marson's lab had collaborated with CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and her team at the University of California, Berkeley to use an electrical pulse together with CRISPR components to knock out certain genes. They also found some success with inserting very small pieces of DNA into a targeted site.

But Roth, a 27-year-old graduate student at UCSF pursuing MD and PhD degrees, was determined to figure out how to paste in much bigger sequences of genetic information. Marson says it was an "ambitious" goal. Scientists had tried before, but found that stuffing large chunks of DNA into T cells would quickly kill them.

"If we can go into the cell and add in new code and instructions, now we can give it whatever new functions we want," Roth says. "If you can add in new DNA sequences at the site that you want, then you have a much greater capacity to generate a cell that's going to be therapeutic or curative for a disease."

"He has already made his mark on the field."

So Roth began experimenting with hundreds of different variables a week, trying to find the right conditions to allow him to engineer T cells without the need for viruses. To know if the technique was working, Roth and his colleagues used a green fluorescent protein that would be expressed in cells that had successfully been modified.

"We went from having a lot of dead cells that didn't have any green to having maybe 1 percent of them being green," Roth says. "At that stage we got really excited."

After nearly a year of testing, he and collaborators found a combination of T cell ratios and DNA quantity mixed with CRISPR and zaps of electricity that seemed to work. These electrical pulses, called electroporation, deliver a jolt to cells that makes their membranes temporarily more permeable, allowing the CRISPR system to slip through. Once inside cells, CRISPR seeks out a specific place in the genome and makes a programmed, precise edit.

Roth and his colleagues used the approach to repair a genetic defect in T cells taken from children with a rare autoimmune disease and also to supercharge T cells so that they'd seek out and selectively kill human cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact. In mice transplanted with human melanoma tissue, the edited T cells went to straight to the cancerous cells and attacked them. The findings were published in Nature in July.

Marson and Roth think even a relatively small number of modified T cells could be effective at treating some cancers, infections, and autoimmune diseases.

Roth is now working with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco to engineer cells to treat a variety of cancers and hopefully commercialize his technique. Fred Ramsdell, vice president at the Parker Institute, says he's impressed by Roth's work. "He has already made his mark on the field."

Right now, there's a huge manufacturing backlog for viruses. If researchers want to start a clinical trial to test a new gene or cell therapy, they often have to wait a year to get the viruses they need.

"I think the biggest immediate impact is that it will lower the cost of a starting an early phase clinical trial."

Ramsdell says what Roth's findings allow researchers to do is engineer T cells quickly and more efficiently, cutting the time it takes to make them from several months to just a few weeks. That will allow researchers to develop and test several potential therapies in the lab at once.

"I think the biggest immediate impact is that it will lower the cost of a starting an early phase clinical trial," Roth says.

This isn't the first time Roth's work has been in the spotlight. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, he made significant contributions to traumatic brain injury research by developing a mouse model for observing the brain's cellular response to a concussion. He started the research, which was also published in Nature, the summer before entering college while he was an intern in Dorian McGavern's lab at the National Institutes of Health.

When Roth entered UCSF as a graduate student, his scientific interests shifted.

"It's definitely a big leap" from concussion research, says McGavern, who still keeps in touch with Roth. But he says he's not surprised about Roth's path. "He's absolutely tireless when it comes to the pursuit of science."

Roth says he's optimistic about the potential for gene and cell therapies to cure patients. "I want to try to figure out what one of the next therapies we should put into patients should be."

Emily Mullin
Emily Mullin is a science and biotech journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

Astronaut and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency displays Extra Dwarf Pak Choi plants growing aboard the International Space Station. The plants were grown for the Veggie study which is exploring space agriculture as a way to sustain astronauts on future missions to the Moon or Mars.

Johnson Space Center/NASA

Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?

Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”

For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Payal Dhar
Payal is a writer based in New Delhi who has been covering science, technology, and society since 1998.

A brain expert weighs in on the cognitive biases that hold us back from adjusting to the new reality of Omicron.

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.

Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.

The only silver lining is that Omicron appears to cause a milder illness than Delta. Yet the World Health Organization has warned about the “mildness” narrative.

That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.

Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Gleb Tsipursky
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally recognized thought leader on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic and Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. He co-founded the Pro-Truth Pledge project.