Background: Cognate immunity against neoplastic cells depends on a balance between effector T cells and regulatory T (Treg) cells. Treg cells prevent immune attack against normal and neoplastic cells by directly suppressing the activation of effector CD4+ and CD8+ T cells. We postulated that a recombinant interleukin 2/diphtheria toxin conjugate (DAB/IL2; Denileukin Diftitox; Ontak) may serve as a useful strategy to deplete Treg cells and break tolerance against neoplastic tumors in humans.
Methods: We administered DAB/IL2 (12 microg/kg; four daily doses; 21 day cycles) to 16 patients with metastatic melanoma and measured the effects on the peripheral blood concentration of several T cell subsets and on tumor burden.
Results: We found that DAB/IL2 caused a transient depletion of Treg cells as well as total CD4+ and CD8+ T cells (< 21 days). T cell repopulation coincided with the de novo appearance of melanoma antigen-specific CD8+ T cells in several patients as determined by flow cytometry using tetrameric MART-1, tyrosinase and gp100 peptide/MHC conjugates. Sixteen patients received at least one cycle of DAB/IL2 and five of these patients experienced regressions of melanoma metastases as measured by CT and/or PET imaging. One patient experienced a near complete response with the regression of several hepatic and pulmonary metastases coupled to the de novo appearance of MART-1-specific CD8+ T cells. A single metastatic tumor remained in this patient and, after surgical resection, immunohistochemical analysis revealed MART1+ melanoma cells surrounded by CD8+ T cells.
Conclusion: Taken together, these data indicate that transient depletion of T cells in cancer patients may disrupt the homeostatic control of cognate immunity and allow for the expansion of effector T cells with specificity against neoplastic cells. Several T cell depleting agents are clinically available and this study provides strong rationale for an examination of their efficacy in cancer patients.
Trial registration: NCT00299689 (ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier).