Leveraging immune memory against measles virus as an antitumor strategy in a preclinical model of aggressive squamous cell carcinoma

J Immunother Cancer. 2021 Oct;9(10):e002170. doi: 10.1136/jitc-2020-002170.


Viral antigens are among the strongest elicitors of immune responses. A significant proportion of the human population already carries pre-existing immunity against several childhood viruses, which could potentially be leveraged to fight cancer. We sought to provide proof of concept in mouse models that a pre-existing measles virus (MeV) immunity can be redirected to inhibit tumor growth by directly forcing expression of cognate antigens in the tumor. To this end, we designed DNA vaccines against known MeV cytotoxic and helper T epitopes, and administered these intradermally to mice that were subsequently challenged with syngeneic squamous cancer cells engineered to either express the cognate antigens or not. Alternatively, established wild-type tumors in vaccinated animals were treated intratumorally with in vitro transcribed mRNA encoding the cognate epitopes. Vaccination generated MeV cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) immunity in mice as demonstrated by enhanced interferon gamma production, antigen-specific T cell proliferation, and CTL-mediated specific killing of antigen-pulsed target cells. When challenged with syngeneic tumor cells engineered to express the cognate antigens, 77% of MeV-vaccinated mice rejected the tumor versus 21% in control cohorts. Antitumor responses were largely dependent on the presence of CD8+ cells. Significant protection was observed even when only 25% of the tumor bulk expressed cognate antigens. We therefore tested the strategy therapeutically, allowing tumors to develop in vaccinated mice before intratumoral injection with Viromer nanoparticles complexed with mRNA encoding the cognate antigens. Treatment significantly enhanced overall survival compared with controls, including complete tumor regression in 25% of mice. Our results indicate that redirecting pre-existing viral immunity to fight cancer is a viable alternative that could meaningfully complement current cancer immune therapies such as personalized cancer vaccines and checkpoint inhibitor blockade.

Keywords: CD8-positive T-lymphocytes; cellular; immunity; immunogenicity; investigational; skin neoplasms; therapies; vaccine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / immunology*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Memory / immunology*
  • Measles virus / immunology*
  • Mice