Background Blockade of co-inhibitory ‘checkpoint’ molecules, PD-1 and CTLA-4, has induced impressive clinical responses in advanced tumors; yet only in a subset of patients.1–3 Limited success with checkpoint blockade therapy suggests other cell extrinsic or intrinsic mechanisms may be dampening an effective immune response. Cytotoxic CD8+ T cells (CTL) encountering chronic antigen and metabolic restriction can differentiate to a terminally exhausted state (Texh), marked by hyporesponsiveness and metabolic, epigenetic, and transcriptional dysfunction.4–8 While enrichment of this population in tumor is a negative prognostic factor,9–10 it remains unclear whether Texh are simply non-functional or instead possess tolerogenic or suppressive properties. Transcriptional profiling of tumor-infiltrating PD-1int (progenitor exhausted) CTL versus PD-1hiTIM-3+ (terminally exhausted; Texh), reveals that exhausted cells express a pattern of genes associated with immune suppression. We hypothesize that Texh potentiate the suppressive microenvironment of solid tumor by autoregulation and inhibition of local immune responses.
Methods T cell populations were isolated from murine melanoma–B16-F10 or a lab-generated melanoma clone of the spontaneous BREF/PTEN model–by expression of inhibitory receptors and assayed in tandem in microsuppression assays. Murine melanoma clones with inhibited oxidative metabolism were generated by CRISPR-Cas9 deletion and validated for ablated mitochondrial respiration by extracellular flux analysis. Enforced expression of CD39 in effector T cells was attained by murine retroviral vector delivery.
Results When sorted directly from tumor, PD-1hiTim3+ Texh, but not progenitor exhausted PD-1int CTL, induce marked suppression of T cell effector responses, comparable to Foxp3+ Treg from the same environment. Expression of the ectonucleotidase, CD39, is uniquely expressed in Texh and increases as T cells differentiate towards exhaustion. Genetic deletion of CD39 in Texh eliminates the regulatory phenotype of tumor-infiltrating Texh and enforced CD39 expression on effector T cells can inhibit T cell receptor signaling and downstream function. CD39 expression correlates with exposure to hypoxia and Texh sorted from tumors engineered to be less hypoxic displayed a significant loss of suppressive capacity. Our data suggest that tumor hypoxia enforces Hif1a-dependent expression of CD39 which depletes extracellular ATP, contributes to generation of immunosuppressive adenosine, and has been previously associated with terminal exhaustion.11–13
Conclusions Our data support a model that as CTL progress to terminal exhaustion, hypoxic exposure enforces the upregulation of CD39, providing Texh a mechanism to suppress proinflammatory processes. These findings suggest Texh are not solely dysfunctional but rather are deleterious to anti-tumor immunity and may need to be drastically reprogrammed or deleted in order to alleviate immunosuppressive functions.
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