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Original research
Isoformic PD-1-mediated immunosuppression underlies resistance to PD-1 blockade in hepatocellular carcinoma patients


Objective Immune checkpoint blockade (ICB) has improved cancer treatment, yet why most hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) patients are resistant to PD-1 ICB remains elusive. Here, we elucidated the role of a programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) isoform, Δ42PD-1, in HCC progression and resistance to nivolumab ICB.

Design We investigated 74 HCC patients in three cohorts, including 41 untreated, 28 treated with nivolumab and 5 treated with pembrolizumab. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells from blood samples and tumour infiltrating lymphocytes from tumour tissues were isolated for immunophenotyping. The functional significance of Δ42PD-1 was explored by single-cell RNA sequencing analysis and validated by functional and mechanistic studies. The immunotherapeutic efficacy of Δ42PD-1 monoclonal antibody was determined in HCC humanised mouse models.

Results We found distinct T cell subsets, which did not express PD-1 but expressed its isoform Δ42PD-1, accounting for up to 71% of cytotoxic T lymphocytes in untreated HCC patients. Δ42PD-1+ T cells were tumour-infiltrating and correlated positively with HCC severity. Moreover, they were more exhausted than PD-1+ T cells by single T cell and functional analysis. HCC patients treated with anti-PD-1 ICB showed effective PD-1 blockade but increased frequencies of Δ42PD-1+ T cells over time especially in patients with progressive disease. Tumour-infiltrated Δ42PD-1+ T cells likely sustained HCC through toll-like receptors-4-signalling for tumourigenesis. Anti-Δ42PD-1 antibody, but not nivolumab, inhibited tumour growth in three murine HCC models.

Conclusion Our findings not only revealed a mechanism underlying resistance to PD-1 ICB but also identified anti-Δ42PD-1 antibody for HCC immunotherapy.

  • hepatocellular carcinoma
  • immunotherapy
  • T lymphocytes
  • inflammation
  • clinical trials

Data availability statement

The scRNA-seq data have been deposited in GEO under accession code GSE155736. Other data are available on reasonable request.

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