Background The immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment (TME) of solid tumors negatively influences the efficacy and fitness of tumor-specific T cells and can render them non-functional. In this repressive tumor milieu, expression of inhibitory immune checkpoint molecules and cytokines as well as deprivation of essential metabolic factors contribute to T cell exhaustion and reduced T cell infiltration. Due to these harsh conditions found in the TME of solid tumors, successful treatment of non-hematological cancer indications with T cell-based immunotherapies remains challenging. New strategies are required to equip therapeutic tumor-specific T cells with the necessary traits to overcome inhibitory signals in the TME and increase T cell persistence in an environment lacking essential metabolic nutrients, like oxygen or glucose. To enhance the clinical efficacy of TCR-T cells in treatment of solid tumors, we generated a chimeric receptor that combines the co-stimulatory domain of 4-1BB with the extracellular domain of PD-1. Expression of this chimeric PD1-41BB switch receptor in TCR-T cells should reverse the inhibitory signal induced by the PD-1/PD-L1 interaction and provide additional co-stimulation to increase functionality and persistence.
Methods Using 2D and 3D in vitro model systems we mimic immunosuppressive conditions in the TME of solid tumors, including low glucose and high TGFbeta levels as well as repeated tumor cell challenge. We evaluate the ability of the chimeric PD1-41BB switch receptor to enhance TCR-T cell activity and functionality under these repressive conditions.
Results Our results demonstrate that TCR-T cells expressing the chimeric PD1-41BB switch receptor show an increased capacity to recognize and kill tumor cells during chronic stimulation with antigen. The enhanced functionality of PD1-41BB-TCR-T cells allows them to eradicate tumor cells even in the presence of additional immunosuppressive factors, including nutrient starvation and expression of inhibitory PD-L1 checkpoint molecules. Furthermore, PD1-41BB-expressing TCR-T cells show a higher persistency and proliferation rate in these challenging co-culture model systems.
Conclusions Equipping therapeutic T cells with the chimeric PD1-41BB switch receptor enhances T cell functionality under immunosuppressive conditions and counteracts checkpoint-mediated dysfunction. For the treatment of PD-L1-poitive malignancies, expression of PD1-41BB by TCR-T cells has the potential to greatly improve the targeting of solid tumors using T cell-based immunotherapies. These preclinical studies support our approach to enhance the clinical efficacy of TCR-T therapies of solid tumors using the chimeric PD1-41BB switch receptor. Subsequent in vivo studies and safety evaluations will pave the way for clinical use of PD1-41BB in adoptive T cell therapy.
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