Checkpoint blockade mediates a proliferative response of tumor-infiltrating CD8+ T lymphocytes (TILs). The origin of this response has remained elusive because chronic activation promotes terminal differentiation or exhaustion of tumor-specific T cells. Here we identified a subset of tumor-reactive TILs bearing hallmarks of exhausted cells and central memory cells, including expression of the checkpoint protein PD-1 and the transcription factor Tcf1. Tcf1+PD-1+ TILs mediated the proliferative response to immunotherapy, generating both Tcf1+PD-1+ and differentiated Tcf1-PD-1+ cells. Ablation of Tcf1+PD-1+ TILs restricted responses to immunotherapy. Tcf1 was not required for the generation of Tcf1+PD-1+ TILs but was essential for the stem-like functions of these cells. Human TCF1+PD-1+ cells were detected among tumor-reactive CD8+ T cells in the blood of melanoma patients and among TILs of primary melanomas. Thus, immune checkpoint blockade relies not on reversal of T cell exhaustion programs, but on the proliferation of a stem-like TIL subset.
Keywords: T cell exhaustion; T cell factor 1; T cell reinvigoration; cancer immunotherapy; checkpoint blockade; memory-like T cells; stem-like T cells; therapeutic vaccination.
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