Immunotherapeutic strategies including the blockade of programmed death 1 (PD-1) receptors hold promise for the treatment of various cancers including non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC). Preclinical data suggest that pre-existing tumor immunity is important for disease regression upon checkpoint blockade-based therapies. However, the nature of antigen-specific T-cell responses that correlate with the clinical response to immunotherapy in NSCLC patients is not known. The embryonic stem cell gene SRY (sex determining region Y)-box 2 (SOX2) has recently emerged as a major oncogenic driver in NSCLC. Here, we show that nearly 50% of a cohort of NSCLC patients mounted both CD4+ and CD8+ T-cell responses against SOX2, which could be readily detected among peripheral blood mononuclear cells. T-cell responses against SOX2 were associated with NSCLC regression upon immunotherapy with anti-PD-1 monoclonal antibodies, whereas none of the patients lacking SOX2-specific T cells experienced disease regression following immune checkpoint blockade. Conversely, cellular and humoral responses against viral antigens or another tumor-associated antigen (NY-ESO-1) failed to correlate with the clinical response of NSCLC patients to immunotherapy. Of note, the administration of PD-1-blocking antibodies was associated with intramolecular epitope spread as well as with the amplification of SOX2-specific immune responses in vivo. These findings identify SOX2 as an important tumor-associated antigen in NSCLC and link the presence of SOX2-specific T cells with the clinical response of lung cancer patients to immunotherapy.
Keywords: checkpoint blockade; embryonal stem cells; immunotherapy; lung cancer; programmed death 1; sox2.