Anti-PD-1 immune checkpoint blockers can induce sustained clinical responses in cancer but how they function in vivo remains incompletely understood. Here, we combined intravital real-time imaging with single-cell RNA sequencing analysis and mouse models to uncover anti-PD-1 pharmacodynamics directly within tumors. We showed that effective antitumor responses required a subset of tumor-infiltrating dendritic cells (DCs), which produced interleukin 12 (IL-12). These DCs did not bind anti-PD-1 but produced IL-12 upon sensing interferon γ (IFN-γ) that was released from neighboring T cells. In turn, DC-derived IL-12 stimulated antitumor T cell immunity. These findings suggest that full-fledged activation of antitumor T cells by anti-PD-1 is not direct, but rather involves T cell:DC crosstalk and is licensed by IFN-γ and IL-12. Furthermore, we found that activating the non-canonical NF-κB transcription factor pathway amplified IL-12-producing DCs and sensitized tumors to anti-PD-1 treatment, suggesting a therapeutic strategy to improve responses to checkpoint blockade.
Keywords: IFN-γ; IL-12; anti-PD-1; cancer; checkpoint; dendritic cell; immunotherapy; non-canonical NF-κB.
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