Immunotherapy drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors have revolutionized cancer treatment: many patients with malignancies that until recently would have been considered untreatable are experiencing long-term remissions. But the majority of patients don’t respond to these drugs, and they work far better in some cancers than others, for reasons that have befuddled scientists. Now, UC San Francisco researchers have identified a surprising phenomenon that may explain why many cancers don’t respond to these drugs, and hints at new strategies to unleash the immune system against disease.
“In the best-case scenarios, like melanoma, only 20 to 30 percent of patients respond to immune checkpoint inhibitors, while in other cases, like prostate cancer, there is only a single-digit response rate,” said Robert Blelloch, MD, PhD, professor of urology at UCSF and senior author of the new study, published April 4 in Cell. “That means a majority of patients are not responding. We wanted to know why.”
In malignant tissue, a protein called PD-L1 functions as an “invisibility cloak”: by displaying PD-L1 on their surfaces, cancer cells protect themselves from attacks by the immune system. Some of the most successful immunotherapies work by interfering with PD-L1 or with its receptor, PD-1, which resides on immune cells. When the interaction between PD-L1 and PD-1 is blocked, tumors lose their ability to hide from the immune system and become vulnerable to anti-cancer immune attacks.
One reason that some tumors may be resistant to these treatments is that they do not produce PD-L1, meaning that there is nowhere for existing checkpoint inhibitors to act — that is, they may avoid the immune system using other checkpoint proteins yet to be discovered. Scientists have previously shown the PD-L1 protein to be present at low levels, or completely absent, in tumor cells of prostate cancer patients, potentially explaining their resistance to the therapy.
But in their new paper Blelloch’s group is suggesting a very different answer to this puzzle: PD-L1 is being mass-produced by these tumors, they found, but instead of displaying the protein on their surface, cancer cells export PD-L1 in molecular freighters known as exosomes. These PD-L1–packed exosomes sprout from cancer cells and travel through the lymphatic system or bloodstream to lymph nodes, the sites where immune cells are activated to protect the body. There, the PD-L1 proteins act as itinerant molecular saboteurs, remotely disarming immune cells and preventing them from locating tumors to mount an anti-cancer offensive.
So rather than shutting down the immune response at the tumor surface, exosomal PD-L1 can inhibit immune cells before they even arrive there. And unlike PD-L1 found on the tumor’s surface, exosomal PD-L1, for unclear reasons, is resistant to existing checkpoint inhibitors.
“The standard model says that PD-L1 acts on immune cells that travel to the tumor niche, where they encounter this immune-suppressing protein,” Blelloch said. “Our data suggests that this isn’t true for many immunotherapy-resistant tumors. These tumors evade the immune system by delivering exosomal PD-L1 to lymph nodes, where they inhibit the activation of immune cells remotely. These findings represent a break from dogma.”
Blelloch’s group decided to explore exosomes when they noticed something strange that suggested the standard model of PD-L1 presentation was flawed. Like scientists that came before, they found low levels of PD-L1 protein in resistant cancers. But when they looked at messenger RNA (mRNA), the molecular precursor of all proteins, they observed an odd discrepancy: there was far too much PD-L1 mRNA for the scant amount of PD-L1 protein that they measured in the cells.
“We saw the difference between mRNA and protein levels and wanted to figure what was happening,” Blelloch said. “Our experiments also showed that the protein was in fact being made at some point, and that it wasn’t being degraded. That’s when we looked at exosomes and found the missing PD-L1.”