Programmed death 1 (PD-1) and its ligand (PD-L1) play pivotal roles in regulating host immune responses. However, the inhibitory effects of this pathway on the function of cytotoxic CD8(+) T lymphocytes, the main effector cells in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) patients, are not well defined. In this study, we characterized circulating and intratumor PD-1/PD-L1 expression and analyzed their association with disease progression in a cohort of hepatitis B virus-infected patients, including 56 with HCC, 20 with liver cirrhosis (LC) and 20 healthy controls (HC). The frequency of circulating PD-1(+) CD8(+) T cells increased with disease progression from LC to HCC patients versus HC. Furthermore, tumor-infiltrating effector CD8(+) T cells showed a drastic increase in PD-1 expression. These increases in circulating and intratumor PD-1(+) CD8(+) T cells could predict poorer disease progression and postoperative recurrence. Immunohistochemical staining showed that PD-L1 expressing hepatoma cells and apoptotic infiltrating CD8(+) T cells were both enriched in tumor sections. In vitro, CD8(+) T cells induced PD-L1 expression on hepatoma cells in an IFN-γ-dependent manner, which in turn promoted CD8(+) T cells apoptosis, and blocking PD-L1 reversed this effect. Therefore, this study extends our knowledge of the role of the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway in tumor evasion and provides evidence for a new therapeutic target in HCC patients.
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