High-Dimensional Characterization of the Systemic Immune Landscape Informs on Synergism Between Radiation Therapy and Immune Checkpoint Blockade

Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2020 Sep 1;108(1):70-80. doi: 10.1016/j.ijrobp.2020.06.007. Epub 2020 Jun 13.


Purpose: Improved antitumor responses have been observed in patients after combination radiation therapy (RT) and immune checkpoint blockade (ICB). Whether these clinical responses are linked to the host systemic immune system has not been elucidated.

Methods and materials: In this single-institution prospective observational study, peripheral blood was longitudinally collected from 10 patients with metastatic disease who had responded to anti-PD-1/anti-PD-L1 ICB and received RT (8-50 Gy in 1-5 fractions) upon disease progression at the following timepoints: baseline (pre-RT), 1 to 2 weeks post-RT, and post-ICB (cycle 1) on reintroduction post-RT. To thoroughly characterize the interaction between combined RT-ICB and the host immune system, we performed high-dimensional, mass cytometry-based immunophenotyping of circulating lymphocytes using a 40-marker panel addressing lineage, differentiation, activation, trafficking, cytotoxicity, and costimulatory and inhibitory functions. Phenotypic expression of circulating lymphocytes was compared across patients and time points and correlated with post-RT tumor responses.

Results: Foremost, we demonstrated excellent posttreatment clinical responses, including 4 local responses with >50% reduction in radiated tumor size, 1 out-of-field response, and 4 patients who resumed ICB for >1 year. Baseline and post-RT immune states were highly heterogeneous among patients. Despite this interindividual heterogeneity in baseline immune states, we observed a systemic immune reaction to RT-ICB common across patients, histology, and radiation sites; a subset of pre-existing Ki-67+ CD8+ T cells were increased post-RT and further expanded upon reintroduction of ICB post-RT (2.3-fold increase, P = .02). Importantly, RT did not alter the phenotypic profile of these Ki-67+ CD8+ T cells, which was characterized by a distinct activated and differentiated effector phenotype.

Conclusions: Collectively, these findings point toward a sustained reinvigoration of host antitumor immunity after RT-ICB and suggest an expansion in activated Ki-67+ CD8+ T cells as a possible demonstration of this synergy, thereby providing new insights that may support the development of optimal sequencing strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • B7-H1 Antigen / metabolism
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Survival / immunology
  • Cell Survival / radiation effects
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Humans
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Killer Cells, Natural / cytology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / radiation effects
  • Radiotherapy*
  • T-Lymphocytes / cytology
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / radiation effects


  • B7-H1 Antigen
  • CD274 protein, human
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors