Single-cell analysis of peripheral CD8 + T cell responses in patients receiving checkpoint blockade immunotherapy for cancer

Cancer Immunol Immunother. 2022 Jul 30. doi: 10.1007/s00262-022-03263-9. Online ahead of print.


Checkpoint blockade immunotherapy has become a first-line treatment option for cancer patients, with success in increasingly diverse cancer types. Still, many patients do not experience durable responses and the reasons for clinical success versus failure remain largely undefined. Investigation of immune responses within the tumor microenvironment can be highly informative but access to tumor tissue is not always available, highlighting the need to identify biomarkers in the blood that correlate with clinical success. Here, we used single-cell RNA sequencing coupled with T cell receptor sequencing to define CD8+ T cell responses in peripheral blood of two patients with melanoma before and after immunotherapy with either anti-PD-1 (nivolumab) alone or the combination of anti-PD-1 and CTLA-4 (ipilimumab). Both treatment regimens increased transcripts associated with cytolytic effector function and decreased transcripts associated with naive T cells. These responses were further evaluated at the protein level and extended to a total of 53 patients with various cancer types. Unexpectedly, the induction of CD8+ T cell responses associated with cytolytic function was variable and did not predict therapeutic success in this larger patient cohort. Rather, a decrease in the frequency of T cells with a naive-like phenotype was consistently observed after immunotherapy and correlated with prolonged patient survival. In contrast, a more detailed clonotypic analysis of emerging and expanding CD8+ T cells in the blood revealed that a majority of individual T cell clones responding to immunotherapy acquired a transcriptional profile consistent with cytolytic effector function. These results suggest that responses to checkpoint blockade immunotherapy are evident and traceable in patients' blood, with outcomes predicted by the simultaneous loss of naive-like CD8+ T cells and the expansion of mostly rare and diverse cytotoxic CD8+ T cell clones.

Keywords: Checkpoint blockade; Immunotherapy; Single-cell RNA sequencing; T cells.