Tumor antigen-specific T cells rapidly lose energy and effector function in tumors. The cellular mechanisms by which energy loss and inhibition of effector function occur in tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) are ill-defined, and methods to identify tumor antigen-specific TILs that experience such stress are unknown. Processes upstream of the mitochondria guide cell-intrinsic energy depletion. We hypothesized that a mechanism of T-cell-intrinsic energy consumption was the process of oxidative protein folding and disulfide bond formation that takes place in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) guided by protein kinase R-like endoplasmic reticulum kinase (PERK) and downstream PERK axis target ER oxidoreductase 1 (ERO1α). To test this hypothesis, we created TCR transgenic mice with a T-cell-specific PERK gene deletion (OT1 + Lckcre+ PERK f/f , PERK KO). We found that PERK KO and T cells that were pharmacologically inhibited by PERK or ERO1α maintained reserve energy and exhibited a protein profile consistent with reduced oxidative stress. These T-cell groups displayed superior tumor control compared with T effectors. We identified a biomarker of ER-induced mitochondrial exhaustion in T cells as mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (mtROS), and found that PD-1+ tumor antigen-specific CD8+ TILs express mtROS. In vivo treatment with a PERK inhibitor abrogated mtROS in PD-1+ CD8+ TILs and bolstered CD8+ TIL viability. Combination therapy enabled 100% survival and 71% tumor clearance in a sarcoma mouse model. Our data identify the ER as a regulator of T-cell energetics and indicate that ER elements are effective targets to improve cancer immunotherapy.
©2019 American Association for Cancer Research.