Background: Treatment for children with high-risk neuroblastoma with anti-disialoganglioside mAb ch14.18, IL-2, and GM-CSF plus 13-cis-retinoic acid after myeloablative chemotherapy improves survival, but 40 % of patients still relapse during or after this therapy. The microenvironment of high-risk neuroblastoma tumors includes macrophages, IL-6, and TGFβ1. We hypothesized that this microenvironment suppresses anti-tumor functions of natural killer (NK) cells and that lenalidomide, an immune-modulating drug, could overcome suppression.
Methods: Purified NK cells were cultured with IL-2, neuroblastoma/monocyte-conditioned culture medium (CM), IL-6, TGFβ1, and lenalidomide in various combinations and then characterized using cytotoxicity (direct and antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity), cytokine, flow cytometry, and Western blotting assays. Anti-tumor activity of NK cells with lenalidomide, ch14.18, or both was evaluated with a xenograft model of neuroblastoma.
Results: CM from neuroblastoma/monocyte co-cultures contains IL-6 and TGFβ1 that suppress IL-2 activation of NK cell cytotoxicity and IFNγ secretion. IL-6 and TGFβ1 activate the STAT3 and SMAD2/3 pathways in NK cells and suppress IL-2 induction of cytotoxicity, granzymes A and B release, perforin expression, and IFNγ secretion. Lenalidomide blocks IL-6 and TGFβ1 activation of these signaling pathways and inhibits their suppression of NK cells. Neuroblastoma cells in NOD/SCID mice exhibit activated STAT3 and SMAD2/3 pathways. Their growth is most effectively inhibited by co-injected peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) containing NK cells when mice are treated with both ch14.18 and lenalidomide.
Conclusion: Immunotherapy with anti-tumor cell antibodies may be improved by lenalidomide, which enhances activation of NK cells and inhibits their suppression by IL-6 and TGFβ1.