Enhancing immune cell functions in tumors remains a major challenge in cancer immunotherapy. Hypoxia is a common feature of solid tumors, and cells adapt by upregulating the transcription factor HIF-1α. Here, we defined the transcriptional landscape of mouse tumor-infiltrating natural killer (NK) cells by using single-cell RNA sequencing. Conditional deletion of Hif1a in NK cells resulted in reduced tumor growth, elevated expression of activation markers, effector molecules, and an enriched NF-κB pathway in tumor-infiltrating NK cells. Interleukin-18 (IL-18) from myeloid cells was required for NF-κB activation and the enhanced anti-tumor activity of Hif1a-/- NK cells. Extended culture with an HIF-1α inhibitor increased human NK cell responses. Low HIF1A expression was associated with high expression of IFNG in human tumor-infiltrating NK cells, and an enriched NK-IL18-IFNG signature in solid tumors correlated with increased overall patient survival. Thus, inhibition of HIF-1α unleashes NK cell anti-tumor activity and could be exploited for cancer therapy.
Keywords: HIF-1α; IFN-γ; IL-18; NF-κB; NK cells; natural killer cells; single-cell RNA sequencing; tumor immunology; tumor microenvironment.
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