Dendritic cells (DCs) play a crucial role in initiating and shaping immune responses. The effects of DCs on adaptive immune responses depend partly on functional specialization of distinct DC subsets, and partly on the activation state of DCs, which is largely dictated by environmental signals. Fully activated immunostimulatory DCs express high levels of costimulatory molecules, produce pro-inflammatory cytokines, and stimulate T cell proliferation, whereas tolerogenic DCs express low levels of costimulatory molecules, produce immunomodulatory cytokines and impair T cell proliferation. Relevant to the increasing use of immune checkpoint blockade in cancer treatment, signals generated from inhibitory checkpoint molecules on DC surface may also contribute to the inhibitory properties of tolerogenic DCs. Yet, our knowledge on the expression of inhibitory molecules on human DC subsets is fragmentary. Therefore, in this study, we investigated the expression of three immune checkpoints on peripheral blood DC subsets, in basal conditions and upon exposure to pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory stimuli, by using a flow cytometric panel that allows a direct comparison of the activatory/inhibitory phenotype of DC-lineage and inflammatory DC subsets. We demonstrated that functionally distinct DC subsets are characterized by differential expression of activatory and inhibitory molecules, and that cDC1s in particular are endowed with a unique immune checkpoint repertoire characterized by high TIM-3 expression, scarce PD-L1 expression and lack of ILT2. Notably, this unique cDC1 repertoire was subverted in a group of patients with myelodysplastic syndromes included in the study. Applied to the characterization of DCs in the tumor microenvironment, this panel has the potential to provide valuable information to be used for investigating the role of DC subsets in cancer, guiding DC-targeting treatments, and possibly identifying predictive biomarkers for clinical response to cancer immunotherapy.
Keywords: ILT2; PD-L1; TIM-3; conventional cDC1 dendritic cells; conventional cDC2 dendritic cells; immune checkpoint; myelodysplastic syndromes; plasmacytoid dendritic cells.