T-cell exhaustion, or an impaired capacity to secrete cytokines and proliferate with overexpression of immune checkpoint receptors, occurs during chronic viral infections but has also been observed in tumors, including hepatocellular carcinomas (HCCs). We investigated features of exhaustion in CD8+ T cells isolated from HCC specimens.
We obtained HCC specimens, along with adjacent nontumor tissues and blood samples, from 90 patients who underwent surgical resection at Asan Medical Center (Seoul, Korea) from April 2016 through April 2018. Intrahepatic lymphocytes and tumor-infiltrating T cells were analyzed by flow cytometry. Tumor-infiltrating CD8+ T cells were sorted by flow cytometry into populations based on expression level of programmed cell death 1 (PDCD1 or PD1): PD1-high, PD1-intermediate, and PD1-negative. Sorted cells were analyzed by RNA sequencing. Proliferation and production of interferon gamma (IFNG) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) by CD8+ T cells were measured in response to anti-CD3 and antibodies against immune checkpoint receptors including PD1, hepatitis A virus cellular receptor 2 (HAVCR2 or TIM3), lymphocyte activating 3 (LAG3), or isotype control. Tumor-associated antigen-specific CD8+ T cells were identified using HLA-A*0201 dextramers. PDL1 expression on tumor tissue was assessed by immunohistochemistry.
PD1-high, PD1-intermediate, and PD1-negative CD8+ T cells from HCCs had distinct gene expression profiles. PD1-high cells expressed higher levels of genes that regulate T-cell exhaustion than PD1-intermediate cells. PD1-high cells expressed TIM3 and LAG3, and low proportions of TCF1+, TBEThigh/eomesoderminlow, and CD127+. PD1-high cells produced the lowest amounts of IFNG and TNF upon anti-CD3 stimulation. Differences in the PD1 expression patterns of CD8+ T cells led to the identification of 2 subgroups of HCCs: HCCs with a discrete population of PD1-high cells were more aggressive than HCCs without a discrete population of PD1-high cells. HCCs with a discrete population of PD1-high cells had higher levels of predictive biomarkers of response to anti-PD1 therapy. Incubation of CD8+ T cells from HCCs with a discrete population of PD1-high cells with antibodies against PD1 and TIM3 or LAG3 further restored proliferation and production of IFNG and TNF in response to anti-CD3.
We found HCC specimens to contain CD8+ T cells that express different levels of PD1. HCCs with a discrete population of PD1-high CD8+ T cells express TIM3 and/or LAG3 and produce low levels of IFNG and TNF in response to anti-CD3. Incubation of these cells with antibodies against PD1 and TIM3 or LAG3 further restore proliferation and production of cytokines; HCCs with a discrete population of PD1-high CD8+ T cells might be more susceptible to combined immune checkpoint blockade-based therapies.