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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Jun 28;108(26):10656-61. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1100354108. Epub 2011 Jun 13.

HLA-E expression by gynecological cancers restrains tumor-infiltrating CD8⁺ T lymphocytes.

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Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University Medical Center Groningen, University of Groningen, 9700 RB Groningen, The Netherlands.


HLA-E is a nonclassical HLA class I molecule, which differs from classical HLA molecules by its nonpolymorphic, conserved nature. Expression and function of HLA-E in normal tissues and solid tumors is not fully understood. We investigated HLA-E protein expression on tissue sections of 420 ovarian and cervical cancers and found equal or higher levels than normal counterpart epithelia in 80% of the tumors. Expression was strongly associated with components of the antigen presentation pathway, e.g., transporter associated with antigen processing (TAP), endoplasmic reticulum aminopeptide (ERAP), β2 microglobulin (β2m), HLA classes I and II, and for ovarian cancer with tumor infiltrating CD8(+) T lymphocytes (CTLs). This association argues against the idea that HLA-E would compensate for the loss of classical HLA in tumors. In situ detection of HLA-E interacting receptors revealed a very low infiltrate of natural killer (NK) cells, but up to 50% of intraepithelial CTLs expressed the inhibiting CD94/NKG2A receptor. In cervical cancer, HLA-E expression did not alter the prognostic effect of CTLs, most likely due to very high infiltrating CTL numbers in this virus-induced tumor. Overall survival of ovarian cancer patients, however, was strongly influenced by HLA-E, because the beneficial effect of high CTL infiltration was completely neutralized in the subpopulation with strong HLA-E expression. Interestingly, these results indicate that CTL infiltration in ovarian cancer is associated with better survival only when HLA-E expression is low and that intratumoral CTLs are inhibited by CD94/NKG2A receptors on CTLs in the tumor microenvironment.

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