Combination of ultrasound-based mechanical disruption of tumor with immune checkpoint blockade modifies tumor microenvironment and augments systemic antitumor immunity

J Immunother Cancer. 2022 Jan;10(1):e003717. doi: 10.1136/jitc-2021-003717.


Background: Despite multimodal adjuvant management with radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormonal therapies, most surgically resected primary breast cancers relapse or metastasize. A potential solution to late and distant recurrence is to augment systemic antitumor immunity, in part by appropriately presenting tumor antigens, but also by modulating the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment (TME). We previously validated this concept in models of murine carcinoma treated with a novel predominately microcavitating version of high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU), mechanical high-intensity focused ultrasound (M-HIFU). Here we elucidated the mechanisms of enhanced antitumor immunity by M-HIFU over conventional thermal high-intensity focused ultrasound (T-HIFU) and investigated the potential of the combinatorial strategy with an immune checkpoint inhibitor, anti-PD-L1 antibody.

Methods: The antitumor efficacy of treatments was investigated in syngeneic murine breast cancer models using triple-negative (E0771) or human ErbB-2 (HER2) expressing (MM3MG-HER2) tumors in C57BL/6 or BALB/c mice, respectively. Induction of systemic antitumor immunity by the treatments was tested using bilateral tumor implantation models. Flow cytometry, immunohistochemistry, and single-cell RNA sequencing were performed to elucidate detailed effects of HIFU treatments or combination treatment on TME, including the activation status of CD8 T cells and polarization of tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs).

Results: More potent systemic antitumor immunity and tumor growth suppression were induced by M-HIFU compared with T-HIFU. Molecular characterization of the TME after M-HIFU by single-cell RNA sequencing demonstrated repolarization of TAM to the immunostimulatory M1 subtype compared with TME post-T-HIFU. Concurrent anti-PD-L1 antibody administration or depletion of CD4+ T cells containing a population of regulatory T cells markedly increased T cell-mediated antitumor immunity and tumor growth suppression at distant, untreated tumor sites in M-HIFU treated mice compared with M-HIFU monotherapy. CD8 T and natural killer cells played major roles as effector cells in the combination treatment.

Conclusions: Physical disruption of the TME by M-HIFU repolarizes TAM, enhances T-cell infiltration, and, when combined with anti-PD-L1 antibody, mediates superior systemic antitumor immune responses and distant tumor growth suppression. These findings suggest M-HIFU combined with anti-PD-L1 may be useful in reducing late recurrence or metastasis when applied to primary tumors.

Keywords: breast neoplasms; immunotherapy; macrophages; translational medical research; tumor microenvironment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Combined Modality Therapy / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Mice
  • Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Tumor Microenvironment
  • Ultrasonography / methods*


  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors