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Cancer Res. 2011 Aug 1;71(15):5111-22. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-11-0108. Epub 2011 Jun 9.

PD-1/PD-L1 interactions contribute to functional T-cell impairment in patients who relapse with cancer after allogeneic stem cell transplantation.

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Departments of Laboratory Medicine, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.


Tumor relapses remain a serious problem after allogeneic stem cell transplantation (alloSCT), despite the long-term persistence of minor histocompatibility antigen (MiHA)-specific memory CD8(+) T cells specific for the tumor. We hypothesized that these memory T cells may lose their function over time in transplanted patients. Here, we offer functional and mechanistic support for this hypothesis, based on immune inhibition by programmed death-1 (PD-1) expressed on MiHA-specific CD8(+) T cells and the associated role of the PD-1 ligand PD-L1 on myeloid leukemia cells, especially under inflammatory conditions. PD-L1 was highly upregulated on immature human leukemic progenitor cells, whereas costimulatory molecules such as CD80 and CD86 were not expressed. Thus, immature leukemic progenitor cells seemed to evade the immune system by inhibiting T-cell function via the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway. Blocking PD-1 signaling using human antibodies led to elevated proliferation and IFN-γ production of MiHA-specific T cells cocultured with PD-L1-expressing leukemia cells. Moreover, patients with relapsed leukemia after initial MiHA-specific T-cell responses displayed high PD-L1 expression on CD34(+) leukemia cells and increased PD-1 levels on MiHA-specific CD8(+) T cells. Importantly, blocking PD-1/PD-L1 interactions augment proliferation of MiHA-specific CD8(+) memory T cells from relapsed patients. Taken together, our findings indicate that the PD-1/PD-L pathway can be hijacked as an immune escape mechanism in hematological malignancies. Furthermore, they suggest that blocking the PD-1 immune checkpoint offers an appealing immunotherapeutic strategy following alloSCT in patients with recurrent or relapsed disease.

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