In melanoma, vascular endothelial growth factor-C (VEGF-C) expression and consequent lymphangiogenesis correlate with metastasis and poor prognosis. VEGF-C also promotes tumor immunosuppression, suggesting that lymphangiogenesis inhibitors may be clinically useful in combination with immunotherapy. We addressed this concept in mouse melanoma models with VEGF receptor-3 (VEGFR-3)-blocking antibodies and unexpectedly found that VEGF-C signaling enhanced rather than suppressed the response to immunotherapy. We further found that this effect was mediated by VEGF-C-induced CCL21 and tumor infiltration of naïve T cells before immunotherapy because CCR7 blockade reversed the potentiating effects of VEGF-C. In human metastatic melanoma, gene expression of VEGF-C strongly correlated with CCL21 and T cell inflammation, and serum VEGF-C concentrations associated with both T cell activation and expansion after peptide vaccination and clinical response to checkpoint blockade. We propose that VEGF-C potentiates immunotherapy by attracting naïve T cells, which are locally activated upon immunotherapy-induced tumor cell killing, and that serum VEGF-C may serve as a predictive biomarker for immunotherapy response.
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