Background: Anti-cancer chemotherapy can be simultaneously lymphodepleting and immunostimulatory. Pre-clinical models clearly demonstrate that chemotherapy can synergize with immunotherapy, raising the question how the immune system can be mobilized to generate anti-tumor immune responses in the context of chemotherapy.
Methods and findings: We used a mouse model of malignant mesothelioma, AB1-HA, to investigate T cell-dependent tumor resolution after chemotherapy. Established AB1-HA tumors were cured by a single dose of cyclophosphamide in a CD8 T cell- and NK cell-dependent manner. This treatment was associated with an IFN-alpha/beta response and a profound negative impact on the anti-tumor and total CD8 T cell responses. Despite this negative effect, CD8 T cells were essential for curative responses. The important effector molecules used by the anti-tumor immune response included IFN-gamma and TRAIL. The importance of TRAIL was supported by experiments in nude mice where the lack of functional T cells could be compensated by agonistic anti-TRAIL-receptor (DR5) antibodies.
Conclusion: The data support a model in which chemotherapy sensitizes tumor cells for T cell-, and possibly NK cell-, mediated apoptosis. A key role of tumor cell sensitization to immune attack is supported by the role of TRAIL in tumor resolution and explains the paradox of successful CD8 T cell-dependent anti-tumor responses in the absence of CD8 T cell expansion.