Background To understand fundamental mechanisms of immune escape, we leveraged our functional ex vivo platform of murine derived organotypic tumor spheroids (DOTS)1 to determine if drug-tolerant persister cells analogous to oncogene targeted therapies limit efficacy of programmed death (PD)-1 blockade, and to identify therapeutic vulnerabilities to overcome anti-PD-1 (αPD-1) resistance.
Methods Murine syngeneic cancer models with well-characterized response to αPD-1 therapy were chosen: MC38 (sensitive) and CT26 (partially resistant). Bulk and single-cell (sc) RNA-sequencing (RNA-seq) were performed on αPD-1 treated DOTS. In vitro culture studies were conducted with or without cytokines (100 ng/ml) or drugs (500 nM). In vivo studies in mice bearing MC38 or CT26 tumors evaluated the combinatorial strategy with PD-1 blockade. We further evaluated our findings in scRNA-seq of an αPD-1 refractory colorectal cancer (CRC) patient tumor.2
Results Bulk RNA-seq of αPD-1 treated DOTS revealed a mesenchymal resistant phenotype with upregulated TNF-α/NFκB signaling (figure 1). scRNA-seq further identified a discrete sub-population of immunotherapy persister cells (IPCs). These cells expressed a stem-like phenotype including downregulation of E2F targets indicative of quiescence, suppression of interferon-γ response genes, induction of hybrid epithelial-to-mesenchymal state, and active IL-6 signaling (figure 1). Ly6a/stem cell antigen-1 (Sca-1) and Snai1 were found to be differentially upregulated in IPCs resistant to PD-1 blockade (not shown). Sca-1 positivity was confirmed in pre-existing tumor populations in vitro (figure 2). When enriched via sorting, these cells remained more persistently Sca-1+ at 96 hours in culture of CT26 compared to MC38 cells, related to increased autocrine IL-6 production by CT26 Sca-1+ cells. Indeed, IL-6 supplementation was capable of expanding Sca-1+ cells in culture (figure 2). Sca-1+ cells expressing ovalbumin peptide were refractory to OT-1 T cell mediated killing and failed to upregulate MHC class-1 antigen presentation (H-2Kb) in response to IL-6, in contrast to interferon-γ (not shown). Analysis of RNA-seq data further identified Birc2/3 as potential targets limiting TNF-mediated apoptosis of these cells (not shown). Notably, Birc2/3 antagonism depleted Sca-1+ IPCs in vitro and significantly potentiated the impact of PD-1 blockade in vivo in MC38, and less robustly in CT26 (figure 3). Evaluation in a microsatellite-instability high CRC patient identified a pre-existent IPC subpopulation within the αPD-1 refractory pre-treatment tumor, with high SNAI1 expression compared to CRC samples in TCGA (figure 4).
Conclusions High-resolution functional ex vivo profiling identified Sca-1+/Snai1high stem-like ‘immunotherapy persister cells‘ and uncovered their anti-apoptotic dependencies targetable with Birc2/3 antagonism to augment αPD-1 efficacy.
Ethics Approval This study was approved by the Dana-Farber Animal Care and Use Committee and Novartis Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Informed written consent to participate in Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center institutional review board (IRB)-approved research protocols was obtained from the human subject. A copy of the written consent is available for review by the Editor of this journal. The study was conducted per the WMA Declaration of Helsinki and IRB-approved protocols.
Jenkins RW, Aref AR, Lizotte PH, Ivanova E, Stinson S, Zhou CW, et al. Ex Vivo Profiling of PD-1 Blockade using organotypic tumor spheroids. Cancer Discov. 2018;8(2):196–668 215.
Gurjao C, Liu D, Hofree M, AlDubayan SH, Wakiro I, Su MJ, et al. intrinsic resistance to immune checkpoint blockade in a mismatch repair-deficient colorectal cancer. Cancer Immunol Res 2019;7(8):1230–6.
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