The reinvigoration of anti-cancer immunity by immune checkpoint therapies has greatly improved cancer treatment. In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), patients as well as in the Tcl1 mouse model for CLL, PD1-expressing, exhausted T cells significantly expand alongside CLL development; nevertheless, PD1 inhibition has no clinical benefit. Hence, exhausted T cells are either not activatable by simple PD1 blocking in CLL and/or only an insufficient number of exhausted T cells are CLL-specific. In this study, we examined the latter hypothesis by exploiting the Tcl1 transgenic CLL mouse model in combination with TCR transgene expression specific for a non-cancer antigen. Following CLL tumor development, increased PD1 levels were detected on non-CLL specific T cells that seem dependent on the presence of (tumor-) antigen-specific T cells. Transcriptome analysis confirmed a similar exhaustion phenotype of non-CLL specific and endogenous PD1pos T cells. Our results indicate that in the CLL mouse model, a substantial fraction of non-CLL specific T cells becomes exhausted during disease progression in a bystander effect. These findings have important implications for the general efficacy assessment of immune checkpoint therapies in CLL.
Keywords: CLL; T cell exhaustion; Tcl1.