Background HPK1, a member of the MAP4K family of protein serine/threonine kinases, is involved in regulating signal transduction cascades in cells of hematopoietic origin. Recent data from HPK1 knockout animals and kinase-inactive knock-in animals underscores the role of HPK1 in negatively regulating immune cell activation. This negative-feedback role of HPK1 combined with its restricted expression in cells of hematopoietic origin, make it a compelling drug target for enhancing anti-tumor immunity.
Methods A structure-based drug design approach was used to identify potent and selective inhibitors of HPK1. Biochemical assays, as well as primary human and mouse immune cell-based activation assays, were utilized for multiple iterations of structure-activity relationship (SAR) studies. In vivo efficacy, target engagement and pharmacodynamic data were generated using murine syngeneic tumor models.
Results A highly potent, HPK1 inhibitor was identified, that showed high selectivity against T cell-specific kinases and kinases in the MAP4K family. In vitro, HPK1 small molecule inhibition resulted in enhanced IL-2 production in primary mouse and human T cells, enhanced IL-6 and IgG production in primary human B cells, and enhanced mouse dendritic cell activation and antigen presentation capacity. Furthermore, HPK1 inhibition alleviated the immuno-suppressive effects of PGE2 on naïve human T cells and restored the proliferative capacity of exhausted human T cells. In vivo, HPK1 inhibitionHPK1 inhibition abrogated T cell receptor-stimulated phospho-SLP-76, enhanced cytokine production, and mediated robust tumor growth inhibition in a murine syngeneic tumor model.
Conclusions Pharmacological blockade of HPK1 kinase activity represents a novel and potentially valuable immunomodulatory approach for anti-tumor immunity.
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