• Press Release

Study Reveals a Trio of Immune Cells Vital in Response to Liver Cancer Immunotherapy

Findings may inform new approaches to cancer immunotherapy

  • New York, NY
  • (June 15, 2023)

Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have uncovered a trio of immune cells within tumor niches that are associated with immunotherapy response in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). HCC is the primary type of liver cancer and one of the most deadly cancers worldwide. The findings—which help explain which patients benefit from immunotherapy and which do not—were described in the June 15 issue of Nature Medicine [DOI: 10.1038/s41591-023-02345-0].

The investigators discovered that a specific niche of immune cells in tumors may be critical for reactivating exhausted T cells and enabling them to attack liver tumors upon treatment with checkpoint blockade. Also known as a PD1 inhibitor, checkpoint blockade is a type of cancer immunotherapy that can unleash the cancer-killing activity of T cells.

“While checkpoint blockade has unquestionably revolutionized cancer treatment, most patients do not respond to this immunotherapy. Understanding at the molecular level why only some patients respond will help identify novel targets for improving cancer treatment,” says senior study author Miriam Merad, MD, PhD, Director of the Marc and Jennifer Lipschultz Precision Immunology Institute and Director of the Human Immune Monitoring Center at Icahn Mount Sinai.

The researchers designed a trial that would both benefit patients and provide new data to explore why immune cells in some patients can be reactivated by immunotherapy and eradicate tumors while the same treatment fails to help other patients.

“This work follows a study our team recently published in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology reporting that immunotherapy administered before liver cancer surgery can kill tumors and likely residual cancer cells,” says Thomas Marron, MD, PhD, head of the Early Phase Trial Unit at the Mount Sinai Tisch Cancer Center, the clinical trial lead, and co-senior author of the study.

In this follow-up study, the research team analyzed tumor samples taken from 29 patients before and after treatment with checkpoint blockade. Using single-cell technology and powerful computational platforms, the team identified distinct groups of immune cells within tumors that determined which patients responded positively to immunotherapy and which did not.

These studies represent the first developments out of Icahn Mount Sinai’s TARGET platform—The Neoadjuvant Research Group to Evaluate Therapeutics, founded by Drs. Marron and Merad. TARGET’s goal is to harness the technological capabilities of the Human Immune Monitoring Center and map the molecular changes that occur in cancer and immune cells undergoing treatment to reveal precisely how immunotherapy works.

Only through understanding the mechanisms of how these revolutionary immunotherapies work in humans and the multiple mechanisms behind treatment resistance can we further improve outcomes for all patients, say the investigators.

“Reactivation of a type of T cell called CD8 T cells by checkpoint blockade was known to be critical for clearing tumor cells. Our new study shows that killer CD8 T cells are only reactivated when in close proximity to two other immune cell types: dendritic cells, which educate CD8 T cells to recognize cancer cells, and helper CD4 T cells, which aid in activating the CD8 T cells,” says Alice Kamphorst, PhD, co-senior author of the study, and Assistant Professor of Oncological Sciences at the Precision Immunology Institute.

These findings indicate that these specialized immune cell niches control the reactivation of CD8 T cells and subsequent tumor eradication by checkpoint blockade. By deciphering the molecules pivotal to the formation of these niches within tumors, the researchers intend to identify novel therapeutic targets to use in combination with PD1 blockade and test these treatment combinations via the TARGET platform.

The paper is titled “­­Intratumoral dendritic cell-helper T cell niches enable CD8+ T cell differentiation following PD-1 blockade in hepatocellular carcinoma.”

The remaining  authors, all with Icahn Mount Sinai except where indicated, are Assaf Magen, Pauline Hamon, Nathalie Fiaschi [Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc.], Brian Y. Soong, Matthew D. Park, Raphaël Mattiuz, Etienne Humblin, Leanna Troncoso, Darwin D'souza, Travis Dawson, Joel Kim, Steven Hamel, Mark Buckup, Christie Chang, Alexandra Tabachnikova, Hara Schwartz, Nausicaa Malissen, Yonit Lavin, Alessandra Soares-Schanoski, Bruno Giotti, Samarth Hegde, Giorgio Ioannou, Edgar Gonzalez-Kozlova, Clotilde Hennequin, Jessica Le Berichel, Zhen Zhao, Stephen C. Ward, Isabel Fiel, Baijun Kou, Michael Dobosz, Lianjie Li, Christina Adler, Min Ni, Yi Wei, Wei Wang, Gurinder S. Atwal, Kunal Kundu [Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc.], Kamil J. Cygan [Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc.], Alex Tsankov, Adeeb Rahman, Colles Price [Vizgen Inc.], Nicolas Fernandez [Vizgen Inc.], Jiang He [Vizgen Inc.], Namita T. Gupta, Seunghee Kim-Schulze, Sacha Gnjatic, Ephraim Kenigsberg, Raquel P. Deering [Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc.], Myron Schwartz, Thomas U. Marron, Gavin Thurston, and Alice O. Kamphorst.

This study was funded by Regeneron Inc. In addition, the work was partially supported by National Institutes of Health grants CA224319, DK124165, CA263705, CA196521, CA257195, CA254104, CA154947, R01 AI153363, and the Mount Sinai Tisch Cancer Institute Cancer Center Support Grant P30 CA196521.

To view competing interests, please see the paper at Nature Medicine.

About the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is internationally renowned for its outstanding research, educational, and clinical care programs. It is the sole academic partner for the eight- member hospitals* of the Mount Sinai Health System, one of the largest academic health systems in the United States, providing care to a large and diverse patient population.  

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Icahn Mount Sinai’s commitment to breakthrough science and clinical care is enhanced by academic affiliations that supplement and complement the School’s programs.

Through the Mount Sinai Innovation Partners (MSIP), the Health System facilitates the real-world application and commercialization of medical breakthroughs made at Mount Sinai. Additionally, MSIP develops research partnerships with industry leaders such as Merck & Co., AstraZeneca, Novo Nordisk, and others.

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