Cetuximab ameliorates suppressive phenotypes of myeloid antigen presenting cells in head and neck cancer patients

J Immunother Cancer. 2015 Nov 17;3:54. doi: 10.1186/s40425-015-0097-6. eCollection 2015.


Background: Myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSC) and M2 monocytes/macrophages are two types of suppressive myeloid antigen presenting cells that have been shown to promote tumor progression and correlate with poor prognosis in cancer patients. Tumor antigen specific monoclonal antibodies (mAb) have emerged as important agents for cancer therapy. In addition to the direct inhibition of tumor growth, the Fc portions of the therapeutic mAbs, such as the IgG1 portion of the anti-epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mAb cetuximab, might interact with the Fc-gamma receptors (FcγR) on myeloid cells and modulate their suppressive activity.

Methods: Patients with locally advanced head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) on the UPCI 08-013 NCT01218048 trial were treated with single-agent cetuximab before surgery. Blood were collected pre- and post-cetuximab treatment to analyze frequency of monocytic MDSC (CD11b(+)CD14(+)HLA-DR(lo/-)), granulocytic MDSC (LIN(-)CD11b(+)CD15(+)) and CD11b(+)CD14(+)HLA-DR(hi) monocytes by flow cytometry. Besides, CD11b(+)CD14(+)HLA-DR(hi) monocytes were sorted for qPCR analysis of IL-10 and IL-12B transcripts. MDSC were generated in vitro with or without coated hIgG1 and tested for suppressive activity in mixed leukocyte reaction (MLR). Naïve monocytes from HNSCC patients co-cultured with tumor cell lines in the presence of cetuximab or hIgG1 were analyzed for M1/2 surface markers and cytokines.

Results: We observed significantly increased monocytic MDSC in non-responders and decreased granulocytic MDSC in responders after cetuximab treatment. In addition, circulating CD11b(+)CD14(+)HLA-DR(hi) monocytes of cetuximab responders displayed attenuated M2 polarization, with decreased CD163(+) expression and IL-10 transcripts after cetuximab treatment. This beneficial effect appeared to be FcγR dependent, since CD16 ligation reproduced the reversal of suppressive activity of MDSC in vitro. CD14(+) naïve monocytes from the co-cultures of tumor cells, cetuximab and HNSCC patient PBMC or purified monocytes were skewed to an M1-like phenotype, with increased expression of HLA-DR, CD86 and production of IL-12 p70. Likewise, reduced M2 features (expression of CD163 and production of IL-10) were found after crosslinking CD16 on the surface of monocytes to cetuximab-coated tumor cells.

Conclusion: Our studies demonstrate a novel function of cetuximab in ameliorating suppressive phenotypes of FcγR bearing myeloid cells in cancer patients, which is associated with better clinical outcome of cetuximab-treated patients.

Clinical trial registry: #NCT01218048. Registered 7 October 2010.

Keywords: EGFR; Macrophages; Monoclonal antibody; Myeloid derived suppressor cells.