Background: When T cells infiltrate the tumor environment they encounter a myriad of metabolic stressors including hypoxia. Overcoming the limitations imposed by an inadequate tumor vasculature that contributes to these stressors may be a crucial step to immune cells mounting an effective anti-tumor response. We sought to determine whether the functional capacity of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) could be influenced by the tumor vasculature and correlated this with survival in patients with ovarian cancer.
Methodology and principal findings: In 196 high-grade serous ovarian tumors, we confirmed that the tumor vascularity as measured by the marker CD31 was associated with improved patient disease-specific survival. We also found that tumors positive for markers of TIL (CD8, CD4 and forkhead box P3 (FoxP3)) and T cell function (granzyme B and T-cell restricted intracellular antigen-1 (TIA-1)) correlated significantly with elevated vascularity. In vitro, hypoxic CD8 T cells showed reduced cytolytic activity, secreted less effector cytokines and upregulated autophagy. Survival analysis revealed that patients had a significant improvement in disease-specific survival when FoxP3 expressing cells were present in CD31-high tumors compared to patients with FoxP3 expressing cells in CD31-low tumors [HR: 2.314 (95% CI 1.049-5.106); p = 0.0377]. Patients with high vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) expressing tumors containing granzyme B positive cells had improved survival compared to patients with granzyme B positive cells in VEGF-low tumors [HR: 2.522 (95% CI 1.097-5.799); p = 0.0294].
Significance: Overall, this data provides a rationale for developing strategies aimed at improving the adaptability and function of TIL to hypoxic tumor conditions.