Colon cancer cells acquire immune regulatory molecules from tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes by trogocytosis

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Nov 30;118(48):e2110241118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2110241118.


Cancer cells can develop an immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment to control tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. The underlying mechanisms still remain unclear. Here, we report that mouse and human colon cancer cells acquire lymphocyte membrane proteins including cellular markers such as CD4 and CD45. We observed cell populations harboring both a tumor-specific marker and CD4 in the tumor microenvironment. Sorted cells from these populations were capable of forming organoids, identifying them as cancer cells. Live imaging analysis revealed that lymphocyte membrane proteins were transferred to cancer cells via trogocytosis. As a result of the transfer in vivo, cancer cells also acquired immune regulatory surface proteins such as CTLA4 and Tim3, which suppress activation of immune cells [T. L. Walunas et al, Immunity 1, 405-413 (1994) and L. Monney et al., Nature 415, 536-541 (2002)]. RNA sequencing analysis of ex vivo-cocultured splenocytes with trogocytic cancer cells showed reductions in Th1 activation and natural killer cell signaling pathways compared with the nontrogocytic control. Cancer cell trogocytosis was confirmed in the patient-derived xenograft models of colorectal cancer and head and neck cancer. These findings suggest that cancer cells utilize membrane proteins expressed in lymphocytes, which in turn contribute to the development of the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment.

Keywords: cancer; immune regulatory molecules; trogocytosis; tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / cytology*
  • CTLA-4 Antigen / metabolism*
  • Caco-2 Cells
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Colonic Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Colonic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Hematopoietic Stem Cells / cytology
  • Humans
  • Immune System
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Jurkat Cells
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Lymphocyte Activation / immunology
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / cytology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Organoids / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / immunology
  • Trogocytosis
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • CTLA-4 Antigen
  • CTLA4 protein, human
  • Immunosuppressive Agents