Background Tumor infiltrating T cells (TIL) are highly correlated with response to checkpoint blockade immunotherapy (CBT) in melanoma. However, in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), 61% of patients have TIL, but only 32% respond to CBT. It is unknown how these T cell-inflamed tumors are resistant to CBT. Understanding and overcoming this resistance would greatly increase the number of cancer patients who benefit from CBT.
Methods To understand lung-specific anti-tumor immune responses, a NSCLC cell line derived from an autochthonous murine lung cancer (KP cell line) was transplanted into syngeneic C57BL/6 mice subcutaneously or intravenously. To study antigen-specific responses, the KP cell line was engineered with SIY and 2C TCR transgenic T cells, which are specific for SIY, were adoptively transferred into tumor-bearing animals.
Results Subcutaneous KP tumors responded to CBT (aCTLA-4 and aPD-L1) with significant tumor regression while lung KP tumors were CBT resistant. Immunohistochemistry found that this was not due to lack of T cell infiltration, as lung tumors contained 10-fold higher numbers of CD8+ TIL than subcutaneous tumors. Single cell RNA sequencing of TIL uncovered that CD8+ TIL in lung lesions had blunted effector molecule expression that correlated with a lack of IL-2 signaling. Adoptive transfer of naïve, tumor-reactive 2C T cells resulted in equally robust T cell proliferation in both the inguinal and mediastinal lymph nodes (LNs). However, RNA sequencing of adoptively transferred 2C T cells isolated 3-days after transfer from draining LNs identified that T cells activated in the mediastinal LN had reduced levels of IL-2 signaling and blunted effector functions early during priming. Flow cytometry confirmed that T cells primed in the mediastinal LNs did not express CD25, GZMB, or IFN-g, while T cells in inguinal LNs upregulated all three of these effector molecules. Delivery of IL-2 and IL-12 during priming was sufficient to restore effector molecule expression on 2C T cells in mediastinal LNs. Analysis of published patient data identified that a subset of lung cancer patients showed a sizable population of CD8+ TIL with low IL-2 signaling and low expression of effector molecules, including common targets of CBT.
Conclusions Immunotherapy resistance in T cell-inflamed tumors is due to defective CD8+ T cell effector differentiation. IL-2-based therapies could enhance differentiation of functional CD8+ effector T cells and could turn immunotherapy resistant tumors to immunotherapy sensitive tumors. This is the first mechanistic study providing evidence for a distinct type of T cell dysfunction resistant to current CBT.
Ethics Approval This study was approved by MIT’s Committee on Animal Care, protocol number 0220-006-23.
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