Small cell lung cancer stem cells display mesenchymal properties and exploit immune checkpoint pathways in activated cytotoxic T lymphocytes

Cancer Immunol Immunother. 2021 Jul 6. doi: 10.1007/s00262-021-02998-1. Online ahead of print.


Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is an aggressive tumor type with early dissemination and distant metastasis capacity. Even though optimal chemotherapy responses are observed initially in many patients, therapy resistance is almost inevitable. Accordingly, SCLC has been regarded as an archetype for cancer stem cell (CSC) dynamics. To determine the immune-modulatory influence of CSC in SCLC, this study focused on the characterization of CD44+CD90+ CSC-like subpopulations in SCLC. These cells displayed mesenchymal properties, differentiated into different lineages and further contributed to CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) responses. The interaction between CD44+CD90+ CSC-like cells and T cells led to the upregulation of checkpoint molecules PD-1, CTLA-4, TIM-3, and LAG3. In the patient-derived lymph nodes, CD44+ SCLC metastases were also observed with T cells expressing PD-1, TIM-3, or LAG3. Proliferation and IFN-γ expression capacity of TIM-3 and LAG3 co-expressing CTLs are adversely affected over long-time co-culture with CD44+CD90+ CSC-like cells. Moreover, especially through IFN-γ secreted by the T cells, the CSC-like SCLC cells highly expressed PD-L1 and PD-L2. Upon a second encounter with immune-experienced, IFN-γ-stimulated CSC-like SCLC cells, both cytotoxic and proliferation capacities of T cells were hampered. In conclusion, our data provide evidence for the superior potential of the SCLC cells with stem-like and mesenchymal properties to gain immune regulatory capacities and cope with cytotoxic T cell responses. With their high metastatic and immune-modulatory assets, the CSC subpopulation in SCLC may serve as a preferential target for checkpoint blockade immunotherapy .

Keywords: Cancer stem cell; Immunotherapy; LAG3; Lung cancer; PD-1; TIM-3.