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Cancer Res. 2011 Feb 15;71(4):1406-17. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-10-1296. Epub 2010 Dec 15.

Molecular mechanism of MART-1+/A*0201+ human melanoma resistance to specific CTL-killing despite functional tumor-CTL interaction.

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Department of Surgery, Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, California, USA.


Durable responses in metastatic melanoma patients remain generally difficult to achieve. Adoptive cell therapy (ACT) with ex vivo engineered lymphocytes expressing high affinity T-cell receptors (TCRα/β) for the melanoma antigen MART-1₂₇₋₃₅/HLA-A*0201 [recognized by F5 cytotoxic T lymphocytes (F5 CTL)] has been found to benefit certain patients. However, many other patients are inherently unresponsive and/or relapse for unknown reasons. To analyze the basis for the acquired resistance and strategies to reverse it, we established F5 CTL-resistant (R) human melanoma clones from relatively sensitive parental lines under selective F5 CTL pressure. Surface MART-1₂₇₋₃₅/HLA-A*0201 in these clones was unaltered and F5 CTLs recognized and interacted with them similar to the parental lines. Nevertheless, the R clones were resistant to F5 CTL killing, exhibited hyperactivation of the NF-κB survival pathway, and overexpression of the antiapoptotic genes B cell lymphoma protein 2 (Bcl-2), Bcl-2 related gene (long alternatively spliced variant of Bcl-x gene; Bcl-(xL)), and myeloid cell differentiation 1 (Mcl-1). Sensitivity to F5 CTL-killing could be increased by pharmacological inhibition of the NF-κB pathway, Bcl-2 family members, or the proteasome, the latter of which reduced NF-κB activity and diminished antiapoptotic gene expression. Specific gene-silencing (by siRNA) confirmed the protective role of antiapoptotic factors by reversing R clone resistance. Together, our findings suggest that long-term immunotherapy may impose a selection for the development of resistant cells that are unresponsive to highly avid and specific melanoma-reactive CTLs, despite maintaining expression of functional peptide:MHC complexes, due to activation of antiapoptotic signaling pathways. Though unresponsive to CTL, our results argue that resistant cells can be resensitized to immunotherapy with coadministration of targeted inhibitors to antiapoptotic survival pathways.

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