Hepatocellular Carcinoma Cells Up-regulate PVRL1, Stabilizing PVR and Inhibiting the Cytotoxic T-Cell Response via TIGIT to Mediate Tumor Resistance to PD1 Inhibitors in Mice

Gastroenterology. 2020 Aug;159(2):609-623. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2020.03.074. Epub 2020 Apr 8.


Background & aims: Immune checkpoint inhibitors are effective in the treatment of some hepatocellular carcinomas (HCCs), but these tumors do not always respond to inhibitors of programmed cell death 1 (PDCD1, also called PD1). We investigated mechanisms of resistance of liver tumors in mice to infiltrating T cells.

Methods: Mice were given hydrodynamic tail vein injections of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats-Cas9 (CRISPR-Cas9) and transposon vectors to disrupt Trp53 and overexpress C-Myc (Trp53KO/C-MycOE mice). Pvrl1 and Pvrl3 were knocked down in Hepa1-6 cells by using short hairpin RNAs. Hepa1-6 cells were injected into livers of C57BL/6 mice; some mice were given intraperitoneal injections of antibodies against PD1, T-cell immunoreceptor with Ig and ITIM domains (TIGIT), or CD8 before the cancer cells were injected. Liver tissues were collected from mice and analyzed by histology, immunohistochemistry, and quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction; tumors were analyzed by mass cytometry using markers to detect T cells and other lymphocytes. We obtained HCC and nontumorous liver tissues and clinical data from patients who underwent surgery in Hong Kong and analyzed the tissues by immunohistochemistry.

Results: Trp53KO/C-MycOE mice developed liver tumors in 3-5 weeks; injections of anti-PD1 did not slow tumor development. Tumors from mice given anti-PD1 had larger numbers of memory CD8+ T cells (CD44+CD62L-KLRG1int) and T cells that expressed PD1, lymphocyte activating 3 (LAG3), and TIGIT compared with mice not given the antibody. HCC tissues from patients had higher levels of PVRL1 messenger RNA and protein than nontumorous tissues. Increased PVRL1 was associated with shorter times of disease-free survival. Knockdown of Pvrl1 in Hepa1-6 cells caused them to form smaller tumors in mice, infiltrated by higher numbers of CD8+ T cells that expressed the inhibitory protein TIGIT; these effects were not observed in mice with depletion of CD8+ T cells. In Hepa1-6 cells, PVRL1 stabilized cell surface PVR, which interacted with TIGIT on CD8+ T cells; knockdown of Pvrl1 reduced cell-surface levels of PVR but not levels of Pvr messenger RNA. In Trp53KO/C-MycOE mice and mice with tumors grown from Hepa1-6 cells, injection of the combination of anti-PD1 and anti-TIGIT significantly reduced tumor growth, increased the ratio of cytotoxic to regulatory T cells in tumors, and prolonged survival.

Conclusions: PVRL1, which is up-regulated by HCC cells, stabilizes cell surface PVR, which interacts with TIGIT, an inhibitory molecule on CD8+ effector memory T cells. This suppresses the ant-tumor immune response. Inhibitors of PVRL1/TIGIT, along with anti-PD1 might be developed for treatment of HCC.

Keywords: Immune Regulation; Immunotherapy; Liver Cancer; Mouse Model.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / drug therapy*
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / immunology
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / mortality
  • Cell Line, Tumor / transplantation
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Disease-Free Survival
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic / immunology
  • Gene Knockdown Techniques
  • Humans
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Liver / pathology
  • Liver Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Liver Neoplasms / genetics
  • Liver Neoplasms / immunology
  • Liver Neoplasms / mortality
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Nectins / genetics*
  • Nivolumab / pharmacology
  • Nivolumab / therapeutic use
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / immunology
  • Protein Stability
  • Receptors, Immunologic / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptors, Immunologic / metabolism
  • Receptors, Virus / metabolism
  • Response Evaluation Criteria in Solid Tumors
  • T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic / drug effects
  • T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic / immunology
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / genetics
  • Up-Regulation


  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors
  • NECTIN1 protein, human
  • Nectin1 protein, mouse
  • Nectins
  • PDCD1 protein, human
  • Pdcd1 protein, mouse
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor
  • Receptors, Immunologic
  • Receptors, Virus
  • T cell Ig and ITIM domain protein, mouse
  • Trp53 protein, mouse
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53
  • poliovirus receptor
  • Nivolumab