An IL-15-based superagonist ALT-803 enhances the NK cell response to cetuximab-treated squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck

Cancer Immunol Immunother. 2019 Aug;68(8):1379-1389. doi: 10.1007/s00262-019-02372-2. Epub 2019 Jul 23.


Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) is the sixth most common cancer worldwide and epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is overexpressed in greater than 90% of patient tumors. Cetuximab is a monoclonal antibody that binds to EGFR and can activate immune cells, such as natural killer (NK) cells, that express receptors for the Fc (constant region) of immunoglobulin G. IL-15 (interleukin-15) is a critical factor for the development, proliferation and activation of effector NK cells. A novel IL-15 compound known as ALT-803 that consists of genetically modified IL-15 plus the IL-15 receptor alpha protein (IL15Rα) fused to the Fc portion of IgG1 has recently been developed. We hypothesized that treatment with ALT-803 would increase NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity of cetuximab-coated head and neck squamous cells. CD56+ NK cells from normal healthy donors were treated overnight with ALT-803 and tested for their ability to lyse cetuximab-coated tumor cells. Cytotoxicity was greater following NK cell ALT-803 activation, as compared to controls. ALT-803-treated NK cells secreted significantly higher levels of IFN-γ than control conditions. Additionally, NK cells showed increased levels of phospho-ERK and phospho-STAT5 when co-cultured with cetuximab-coated tumors and ALT-803. Administration of both cetuximab and ALT-803 to mice harboring Cal27 SCCHN tumors resulted in significantly decreased tumor volume when compared to controls and compared to single-agent treatment alone. Overall, the present data suggest that cetuximab treatment in combination with ALT-803 in patients with EGFR-positive SCCHN may result in significant NK cell activation and have important anti-tumor activity.

Keywords: ALT-803; Antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity; Cetuximab; IL-15; Natural killer cells; Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / drug therapy*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / immunology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cetuximab / therapeutic use*
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic
  • ErbB Receptors / immunology
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Interferon-gamma / metabolism
  • Interleukin-15 / genetics
  • Killer Cells, Natural / drug effects
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Lymphocyte Activation
  • Mice
  • Proteins / genetics
  • Proteins / therapeutic use*
  • Receptors, Interleukin-15 / genetics
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / genetics
  • Tumor Burden
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • ALT-803
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Interleukin-15
  • Proteins
  • Receptors, Interleukin-15
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins
  • Interferon-gamma
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Cetuximab