Meet Dr. Rooney

Dr. Cliona Rooney, PhD

Title: Professor, Director of the Translational Research Laboratories of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, Baylor College of Medicine

Hospital: Texas Children's Hospital

Specialty: Immunology, Virology, Cellular Immunotherapy

Research Project funded by Cookies for Kids’ Cancer: Treatment of Osteosarcoma with GD2.CAR expressing varicella zoster virus (VZV)-specific T-cells combined with VZV vaccination.

In layman’s terms, what is the purpose of the research project?

T-cells are white blood cells that are exquisitely specific for the proteins they recognize; each T-cell recognizes only one protein. If a T-cell sees its protein on a cell, it will kill that cell. If we identify proteins that are expressed only on tumor cells and not on normal healthy cells, then we can use T-cells to specifically kill tumor cells without harming any other cells. This makes T-cell therapy very safe, without the short or long-term side effects produced by regular cancer treatments. 

The problem with T-cell therapy for cancer is that cancers use many different ways to avoid T-cells and produce many molecules that stop them growing and killing. Our goal was to help T-cells after infusion into patients.  We knew that, unlike tumors, viral vaccines are very good at activating T-cells and making them grow and kill. We found that the chickenpox (VZV) vaccine made VZV-specific T-cells grow in children and adults who got vaccinated. These are the T-cells that protect children against chickenpox and adults against shingles. So we made T-cells in the laboratory that recognized chickenpox (VZV) proteins. We called these VZV-specific T-cells or VZVSTs for short. We introduced a gene into the VZVSTs that made them also recognize a protein, called GD2, on osteosarcomas. Now our VZVSTs could recognize and kill both VZV-infected cells and osteosarcoma cells.  

We made T-cells specific for GD2 and VZV (GD2/VZVSTs) from children with osteosarcoma, grew them up to large numbers, and infused them back into the patients. Because the tumor cells try to prevent the GD2/VZVSTs from working, we vaccinated the patients with the VZV vaccine (ZOSTAVAX). The vaccine made the GD2/VZVSTs grow in the patients and they were able to slow down the tumor. Of the nine patients treated, three were long term responders. Two are alive more than four years after treatment and one is completely tumor-free. This treatment did not produce any toxicity.

We are working to make this treatment even better so that more patients can benefit from our treatment.

What message would you like to share with our donors?

We are so grateful to Cookies for Kid's donors, who allow us to do what we love, which is to create new, even better, even less toxic treatment for children with cancer since no child should die of cancer and no parent should suffer that unbearable loss.

Tell us a little bit about yourself - where are you from?

I grew up in Hillingdon, Middlesex, England and my current hometown is Bellaire, Texas.

Why did you want to get into pediatric cancer research?

I can still remember my excitement when I discovered research involving humans (rather than the study of animals and plants) when I was an undergraduate in the UK. I immediately wanted to become involved in human research and studied immunology and virology.

When I realized that I could apply my knowledge about virus-specific killer T-cells to treat patients with lymphoma, I felt the same excitement. At that time I was at St Jude Children's Research Hospital, where children receiving allogeneic stem cell transplantation were dying of lymphomas that were caused by Epstein Barr virus (EBV). We generated EBV-specific T-cells from their bone marrow donors and infused them into patients with lymphomas. The results were beyond what anyone expected.

We infused tiny numbers of T-cells that we thought would quickly be lost after infusion, but instead, they grew rapidly in the patients and eliminated their lymphoma forever, without any short or long-term toxicities. 

Do you have kids? 

Four children, aged 28, 25 and 23 (twins).

Are you a dog or cat person?

I Iove dogs, but we are out of the house all day, so cannot have a dog, but we do have a cat, a parrot, two ducks and a horse (Charlie).

What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?

I like to work in the yard, ride Charlie, read, and watch movies.

What’s your favorite piece of lab equipment and why?

The microscope because I love to look at cells. 

What’s your favorite cookie?

Ginger snaps