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This article is the authors’ final published version in Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer, Volume 9, Issue 4, April 2021, Article number e001955.

The published version is available at Copyright © Knitz et al.


BACKGROUND: Numerous trials combining radiation therapy (RT) and immunotherapy in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) are failing. Using preclinical immune cold models of HNSCC resistant to RT-immune checkpoint inhibitors, we investigate therapeutic approaches of overcoming such resistance by examining the differential microenvironmental response to RT.

METHODS: We subjected two HPV-negative orthotopic mouse models of HNSCC to combination RT, regulatory T cells (Treg) depletion, and/or CD137 agonism. Tumor growth was measured and intratumorous and lymph node immune populations were compared among treatment groups. Human gene sets, genetically engineered mouse models DEREG and BATF3-/-, flow and time-of-flight cytometry, RNA-Seq, Treg adoptive transfer studies, and in vitro experiments were used to further evaluate the role of dendritic cells (DCs) and Tregs in these treatments.

RESULTS: In MOC2 orthotopic tumors, we find no therapeutic benefit to targeting classically defined immunosuppressive myeloids, which increase with RT. In these radioresistant tumors, supplementing combination RT and Treg depletion with anti-CD137 agonism stimulates CD103+ DC activation in tumor-draining lymph nodes as characterized by increases in CD80+ and CCR7+ DCs, resulting in a CD8 T cell-dependent response. Simultaneously, Tregs are reprogrammed to an effector phenotype demonstrated by increases in interferonγ+, tumor necrosis factorα+, PI3K+, pAKT+ and Eomes+ populations as well as decreases in CTLA4+ and NRP-1+ populations. Tumor eradication is observed when RT is increased to an 8 Gy x 5 hypofractionated regimen and combined with anti-CD25+ anti-CD137 treatment. In a human gene set from oral squamous cell carcinoma tumors, high Treg number is associated with earlier recurrence.

CONCLUSIONS: Regulating Treg functionality and DC activation status within the lymph node is critical for generating a T cell effector response in these highly radioresistant tumors. These findings underscore the plasticity of Tregs and represent a new therapeutic opportunity for reprogramming the tumor microenvironment in HNSCCs resistant to conventional radioimmunotherapy approaches.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License

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