Epigenetic and Transcriptional Control of the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor Regulates the Tumor Immune Microenvironment in Pancreatic Cancer

Cancer Discov. 2021 Mar;11(3):736-753. doi: 10.1158/2159-8290.CD-20-0519. Epub 2020 Nov 6.


Although immunotherapy has revolutionized cancer care, patients with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDA) rarely respond to these treatments, a failure that is attributed to poor infiltration and activation of T cells in the tumor microenvironment (TME). We performed an in vivo CRISPR screen and identified lysine demethylase 3A (KDM3A) as a potent epigenetic regulator of immunotherapy response in PDA. Mechanistically, KDM3A acts through Krueppel-like factor 5 (KLF5) and SMAD family member 4 (SMAD4) to regulate the expression of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). Ablation of KDM3A, KLF5, SMAD4, or EGFR in tumor cells altered the immune TME and sensitized tumors to combination immunotherapy, whereas treatment of established tumors with an EGFR inhibitor, erlotinib, prompted a dose-dependent increase in intratumoral T cells. This study defines an epigenetic-transcriptional mechanism by which tumor cells modulate their immune microenvironment and highlights the potential of EGFR inhibitors as immunotherapy sensitizers in PDA. SIGNIFICANCE: PDA remains refractory to immunotherapies. Here, we performed an in vivo CRISPR screen and identified an epigenetic-transcriptional network that regulates antitumor immunity by converging on EGFR. Pharmacologic inhibition of EGFR is sufficient to rewire the immune microenvironment. These results offer a readily accessible immunotherapy-sensitizing strategy for PDA.This article is highlighted in the In This Issue feature, p. 521.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • CRISPR-Cas Systems
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • ErbB Receptors / genetics
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic*
  • Genomics / methods
  • Humans
  • Immunity / genetics
  • Jumonji Domain-Containing Histone Demethylases / genetics
  • Jumonji Domain-Containing Histone Demethylases / metabolism
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / immunology
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / metabolism
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / pathology
  • Mice
  • Mutation
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / mortality
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Prognosis
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocytes / pathology
  • Transcriptome
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Tumor Microenvironment / genetics*


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Jumonji Domain-Containing Histone Demethylases
  • KDM3A protein, human
  • EGFR protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors