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Generalized extracellular molecule sensor platform for programming cellular behavior


Strategies for expanding the sensor space of designer receptors are urgently needed to tailor cell-based therapies to respond to any type of medically relevant molecules. Here, we describe a universal approach to designing receptor scaffolds that enables antibody-specific molecular input to activate JAK/STAT, MAPK, PLCG or PI3K/Akt signaling rewired to transgene expression driven by synthetic promoters. To demonstrate its scope, we equipped the GEMS (generalized extracellular molecule sensor) platform with antibody fragments targeting a synthetic azo dye, nicotine, a peptide tag and the PSA (prostate-specific antigen) biomarker, thereby covering inputs ranging from small molecules to proteins. These four GEMS devices provided robust signaling and transgene expression with high signal-to-noise ratios in response to their specific ligands. The sensitivity of the nicotine- and PSA-specific GEMS devices matched the clinically relevant concentration ranges, and PSA-specific GEMS were able to detect pathological PSA levels in the serum of patients diagnosed with prostate cancer.

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We thank C. Rentsch and H. Püschel (University Hospital of Basel) for providing patient samples. We thank M. Xie and L. Schukur for generous advice and S. Reddy as well as A.C. Waindok (D-BSSE, ETH Zurich) for providing and transfecting WEN1.3 cells. This work was supported by the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Molecular Systems Engineering.

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L.S. and M.F. designed the project, analyzed the results and wrote the manuscript, and L.S., T.S., D.F. and D.B. designed and performed the experiments.

Correspondence to Martin Fussenegger.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Fig. 1: Schematic of the GEMS platform.
Fig. 2: Receptor scaffold optimization.
Fig. 3: GEMS devices for nicotine and extracellular proteins.
Fig. 4: GEMS for clinically relevant PSA concentrations.
Fig. 5: GEMS multiplexing and GEMS function in immune cells.