BACKGROUND & AIMS: Ligand binding to inhibitory receptors on immune cells, such as programmed cell death 1 (PD-1) and cytotoxic T-lymphocyte associated protein 4 (CTLA4), down-regulates the T-cell-mediated immune response (called immune checkpoints). Antibodies that block these receptors increase antitumor immunity in patients with melanoma, non-small-cell lung cancer, and renal cell cancer. Tumor-infiltrating CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) have been found to be functionally compromised. We analyzed HCC samples from patients to determine if these inhibitory pathways prevent T-cell responses in HCCs and to find ways to restore their antitumor functions.
METHODS: We collected HCC samples from 59 patients who underwent surgical resection from November 2013 through May 2017, along with tumor-free liver tissues (control tissues) and peripheral blood samples. We isolated tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) and intra-hepatic lymphocytes. We used flow cytometry to quantify expression of the inhibitory receptors PD-1, hepatitis A virus cellular receptor 2 (TIM3), lymphocyte activating 3 (LAG3), and CTLA4 on CD8+ and CD4+ T cells from tumor, control tissue, and blood; we studied the effects of antibodies that block these pathways in T-cell activation assays.
RESULTS: Expression of PD-1, TIM3, LAG3, and CTLA4 was significantly higher on CD8+ and CD4+ T cells isolated from HCC tissue than control tissue or blood. Dendritic cells, monocytes, and B cells in HCC tumors expressed ligands for these receptors. Expression of PD-1, TIM3, and LAG3 was higher on tumor-associated antigen (TAA)-specific CD8+ TIL, compared with other CD8+ TIL. Compared with TIL that did not express these inhibitory receptors, CD8+ and CD4+ TIL that did express these receptors had higher levels of markers of activation, but similar or decreased levels of granzyme B and effector cytokines. Antibodies against CD274 (PD-ligand1 [PD-L1]), TIM3, or LAG3 increased proliferation of CD8+ and CD4+ TIL and cytokine production in response to stimulation with polyclonal antigens or TAA. Importantly, combining antibody against PD-L1 with antibodies against TIM3, LAG3, or CTLA4 further increased TIL functions.
CONCLUSIONS: The immune checkpoint inhibitory molecules PD-1, TIM3, and LAG3 are up-regulated on TAA-specific T cells isolated from human HCC tissues, compared with T cells from tumor-free liver tissues or blood. Antibodies against PD-L1, TIM3, or LAG3 restore responses of HCC-derived T cells to tumor antigens, and combinations of the antibodies have additive effects. Strategies to block PD-L1, TIM3, and LAG3 might be developed for treatment of primary liver cancer.

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Keywords Galectin 9, GPC3, Immunotherapy, MAGEC2
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Journal Gastroenterology
Zhou, G, Sprengers, D, Boor, P.P.C, Doukas, M, Schutz, H. (Hannah), Mancham, S, … Kwekkeboom, J. (2017). Antibodies Against Immune Checkpoint Molecules Restore Functions of Tumor-Infiltrating T Cells in Hepatocellular Carcinomas. Gastroenterology, 153(4), 1107–1119. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2017.06.017