Background Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) including anti-CTLA-4, anti-PD-1, and anti-PD-L1 have been clinically used for the treatment of various types of cancer. However, ICIs have a limited efficacy, and it is required to develop a strategy to enhance the efficacy of ICIs. Hematopoietic progenitor kinase 1 (HPK1) was recently known to inhibit T cell receptor (TCR) signaling by targeting SLP76 thus suppress T-cell effector functions.
Methods In the present study, we examined the expression of HPK-1 and SLP76 in tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) obtained from renal cell carcinoma tissues, in relation with the expression of PD-1 and other immune checkpoint receptors by performing flow cytometry analysis. In addition, we examined if inhibition of the kinase activity of HPK1 by CMPD0914, that is a potent, selective and orally available HPK1 inhibitor, enhanced effector functions of tumor-infiltrating CD8+ T cells in the presence of anti-PD-1 blocking antibodies.
Results First, we found that HPK1 and SLP76 are expressed in both CD8+ and CD4+ T cells including Foxp3+ regulatory T cells irrespective of PD-1 expression. Intriguingly, the expression levels of HPK1 and SLP76 were significantly higher in the PD-1bright population compared to the PD-1- or PD-1dim populations. Further characterization revealed that HPK1 and SLP76 were highly expressed in CD8+ T-cell populations expressing TOX, a transcription regulator of T-cell exhaustion, or TCF-1, a transcription factor related to progenitor-like exhausted T cells. In ex vivo functional assays, anti-PD-1 treatment increased the production of IFN-γ and TNF, and the expression of a proliferation marker, Ki-67 among tumor-infiltrating CD8+ T cells. Interestingly, the effects of anti-PD-1 treatment were further enhanced by the combination treatment with CMPD0914.
Conclusions In summary, we demonstrated that HPK1 and SLP76 are expressed by human tumor-infiltrating T cells, particularly PD-1brightCD8+ T cells, and that anti-PD-1-induced T-cell reinvigoration is significantly enhanced by an HPK1 inhibitor, CMPD0914, rationalizing the combination of anti-PD1/PD-L1 and HPK1 inhibitors for the treatment of cancer.
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