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Cancer Res. 2012 Feb 15;72(4):887-96. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-11-2637. Epub 2011 Dec 28.

CD8(+) T cells specific for tumor antigens can be rendered dysfunctional by the tumor microenvironment through upregulation of the inhibitory receptors BTLA and PD-1.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.


Cytotoxic T cells that are present in tumors and capable of recognizing tumor epitopes are nevertheless generally impotent in eliciting tumor rejection. Thus, identifying the immune escape mechanisms responsible for inducing tumor-specific CD8(+) T-cell dysfunction may reveal effective strategies for immune therapy. The inhibitory receptors PD-1 and Tim-3 are known to negatively regulate CD8(+) T-cell responses directed against the well-characterized tumor antigen NY-ESO-1. Here, we report that the upregulation of the inhibitory molecule BTLA also plays a critical role in restricting NY-ESO-1-specific CD8(+) T-cell expansion and function in melanoma. BTLA-expressing PD-1(+)Tim-3(-) CD8(+) T cells represented the largest subset of NY-ESO-1-specific CD8(+) T cells in patients with melanoma. These cells were partially dysfunctional, producing less IFN-γ than BTLA(-) T cells but more IFN-γ, TNF, and interleukin-2 than the highly dysfunctional subset expressing all three receptors. Expression of BTLA did not increase with higher T-cell dysfunction or upon cognate antigen stimulation, as it does with PD-1, suggesting that BTLA upregulation occurs independently of functional exhaustion driven by high antigen load. Added with PD-1 and Tim-3 blockades, BTLA blockade enhanced the expansion, proliferation, and cytokine production of NY-ESO-1-specific CD8(+) T cells. Collectively, our findings indicate that targeting BTLA along with the PD-1 and Tim-3 pathways is critical to reverse an important mechanism of immune escape in patients with advanced melanoma.

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