Despite emerging appreciation for the important role of immune checkpoint receptors in regulating the effector functions of T cells, it is unknown whether their expression is involved in determining the clinical outcome in response to cetuximab therapy. We examined the expression patterns of immune checkpoint receptors (including PD-1, CTLA-4, and TIM-3) and cytolytic molecules (including granzyme B and perforin) of CD8+ tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) and compared them with those of peripheral blood T lymphocytes (PBL) in patients with head and neck cancer (HNSCC) during cetuximab therapy. The frequency of PD-1 and TIM-3 expression was significantly increased in CD8+ TILs compared with CD8+ PBLs (P = 0.008 and P = 0.02, respectively). This increased CD8+ TIL population coexpressed granzyme B/perforin and PD-1/TIM-3, which suggests a regulatory role for these immune checkpoint receptors in cetuximab-promoting cytolytic activities of CD8+ TILs. Indeed, the increased frequency of PD-1+ and TIM-3+ CD8+ TILs was inversely correlated with clinical outcome of cetuximab therapy. These findings support the use of PD-1 and TIM-3 as biomarkers to reflect immune status of CD8+ T cells in the tumor microenvironment during cetuximab therapy. Blockade of these immune checkpoint receptors might enhance cetuximab-based cancer immunotherapy to reverse CD8+ TIL dysfunction, thus potentially improving clinical outcomes of HNSCC patients. Cancer Immunol Res; 5(5); 1–9. ©2017 AACR.
- Received November 17, 2016.
- Revision received January 17, 2017.
- Accepted April 7, 2017.
- ©2017 American Association for Cancer Research.