Background: There is strong evidence that immunotherapy-mediated tumor rejection can be driven by tumor-specific CD8+ T cells reinvigorated to recognize neoantigens derived from tumor somatic mutations. Thus, the frequencies or characteristics of tumor-reactive, mutation-specific CD8+ T cells could be used as biomarkers of an anti-tumor response. However, such neoantigen-specific T cells are difficult to reliably identify due to their low frequency in peripheral blood and wide range of potential epitope specificities.
Methods: Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from 14 non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients were collected pre- and post-treatment with the anti-PD-L1 antibody atezolizumab. Using whole exome sequencing and RNA sequencing we identified tumor neoantigens that are predicted to bind to major histocompatibility complex class I (MHC-I) and utilized mass cytometry, together with cellular 'barcoding', to profile immune cells from patients with objective response to therapy (n = 8) and those with progressive disease (n = 6). In parallel, a highly-multiplexed combinatorial tetramer staining was used to screen antigen-specific CD8+ T cells in peripheral blood for 782 candidate tumor neoantigens and 71 known viral-derived control peptide epitopes across all patient samples.
Results: No significant treatment- or response associated phenotypic difference were measured in bulk CD8+ T cells. Multiplexed peptide-MHC multimer staining detected 20 different neoantigen-specific T cell populations, as well as T cells specific for viral control antigens. Not only were neoantigen-specific T cells more frequently detected in responding patients, their phenotypes were also almost entirely distinct. Neoantigen-specific T cells from responder patients typically showed a differentiated effector phenotype, most like Cytomegalovirus (CMV) and some types of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-specific CD8+ T cells. In contrast, more memory-like phenotypic profiles were observed for neoantigen-specific CD8+ T cells from patients with progressive disease.
Conclusion: This study demonstrates that neoantigen-specific T cells can be detected in peripheral blood in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients during anti-PD-L1 therapy. Patients with an objective response had an enrichment of neoantigen-reactive T cells and these cells showed a phenotype that differed from patients without a response. These findings suggest the ex vivo identification, characterization, and longitudinal follow-up of rare tumor-specific differentiated effector neoantigen-specific T cells may be useful in predicting response to checkpoint blockade.
Trial registration: POPLAR trial NCT01903993 .
Keywords: Atezolizumab; Immunotherapy; NSCLC; Tumor neoantigen-specific T cells.