Background The majority of Merkel cell carcinomas (MCC), a rare and highly-aggressive type of neuroendocrine skin cancer, are associated with Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) infection. MCPyV integrates into the host genome, resulting in expression of a truncated form of the viral large T antigen (LT) in infected cells, and making LT an attractive target for therapeutic cancer vaccines. While induction of tumor-reactive CD8+ T cells is a major goal of cancer therapy, CD4+ T cells provide essential support to CD8+ T cells by promoting their expression of cytotoxic effector molecules and increasing their migratory capacity. Cytokines secreted by CD4+ T cells, such as IFNγ, can also exert desirable effects on the tumor microenvironment. Therefore, we set out to design a cancer vaccine that promotes potent, antigen-specific CD4+ T cell responses to MCPyV-LT.
Methods To activate antigen-specific CD4+ T cells in vivo, we utilized our nucleic acid platform, UNITE (UNiversal Intracellular Targeted Expression), which fuses a tumor-associated antigen with lysosomal-associated membrane protein 1 (LAMP1). This lysosomal targeting technology results in enhanced antigen presentation and a balanced T cell response. LTS220A, encoding a mutated form of MCPyV-LT that abrogates its pro-oncogenic properties, was introduced into the UNITE platform. LTS220A-UNITE, known as ITI-3000, was administered to female C57BL/6 mice intradermally in the ear with electroporation.
Results ITI-3000 promoted a potent, antigen-specific CD4+ T cell response to MCPyV-LT. Vaccination with ITI-3000 significantly delayed and slowed growth of B16F10 tumors expressing LTS220A in prophylactic and therapeutic settings, respectively. ITI-3000 induced a favorable tumor microenvironment (TME), including significantly enhanced numbers of CD4+ T cells, CD8+ T cells, NK cells, and NKT cells. Tumor-infiltrating myeloid cells were reduced in frequency in vaccinated mice and polarized towards an anti-tumor phenotype. Cytokine analysis of the TME showed significantly enhanced levels of cytokines associated with anti-tumor immune responses in ITI-3000-vaccinated mice, including IFNγ, TNFα, IL-2, and IL-1β. Additionally, ITI-3000 synergized with PD-1 blockade, further reducing tumor burden and enhancing survival in mice receiving combination therapy.
Conclusions We find that DNA vaccination with ITI-3000 using the UNITE platform enhances CD4+ T cell responses to MCPyV-LT and results in anti-tumor immune responses in a mouse model of Merkel cell carcinoma.
Ethics Approval This study was approved by Immunomic Therapeutics’ Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, protocol number 16-11-002.
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