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Nature. 2012 Oct 18;490(7420):412-6. doi: 10.1038/nature11538. Epub 2012 Oct 10.

Melanomas resist T-cell therapy through inflammation-induced reversible dedifferentiation.

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Laboratory of Experimental Dermatology, Department of Dermatology and Allergy, University of Bonn, D-53105 Bonn, Germany.


Adoptive cell transfer therapies (ACTs) with cytotoxic T cells that target melanocytic antigens can achieve remissions in patients with metastatic melanomas, but tumours frequently relapse. Hypotheses explaining the acquired resistance to ACTs include the selection of antigen-deficient tumour cell variants and the induction of T-cell tolerance. However, the lack of appropriate experimental melanoma models has so far impeded clear insights into the underlying mechanisms. Here we establish an effective ACT protocol in a genetically engineered mouse melanoma model that recapitulates tumour regression, remission and relapse as seen in patients. We report the unexpected observation that melanomas acquire ACT resistance through an inflammation-induced reversible loss of melanocytic antigens. In serial transplantation experiments, melanoma cells switch between a differentiated and a dedifferentiated phenotype in response to T-cell-driven inflammatory stimuli. We identified the proinflammatory cytokine tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α as a crucial factor that directly caused reversible dedifferentiation of mouse and human melanoma cells. Tumour cells exposed to TNF-α were poorly recognized by T cells specific for melanocytic antigens, whereas recognition by T cells specific for non-melanocytic antigens was unaffected or even increased. Our results demonstrate that the phenotypic plasticity of melanoma cells in an inflammatory microenvironment contributes to tumour relapse after initially successful T-cell immunotherapy. On the basis of our work, we propose that future ACT protocols should simultaneously target melanocytic and non-melanocytic antigens to ensure broad recognition of both differentiated and dedifferentiated melanoma cells, and include strategies to sustain T-cell effector functions by blocking immune-inhibitory mechanisms in the tumour microenvironment.

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