Sirolimus is an inhibitor of the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) and is emerging as a promising component of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) prophylaxis regimens in the context of allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT). Multiple studies have explored the clinical benefits of adding sirolimus to GVHD prophylaxis; however, detailed immunologic studies have not yet been carried out in this context. Mechanistically, mTOR is at the center of metabolic regulation in T cells and natural killer (NK) cells and is critical for their differentiation to mature effector cells. Therefore, close evaluation of the inhibition of mTOR in the context of immune reconstitution post-HSCT is warranted. In this work, we studied the effect of sirolimus on immune reconstitution using a biobank of longitudinal samples from patients receiving either tacrolimus/sirolimus (TAC/SIR) or cyclosporin A/methotrexate (CSA/MTX) as conventional GVHD prophylaxis. Healthy donor controls, donor graft material, and samples from 28 patients (14 with TAC/SIR, 14 with CSA/MTX) at 3 to 4 weeks and 34 to 39 weeks post- HSCT were collected. Multicolor flow cytometry was used to perform broad immune cell mapping, with a focus on NK cells. NK cell proliferation was evaluated over a 6-day in vitro homeostatic proliferation protocol. Furthermore, in vitro NK cell responses to cytokine stimulation or tumor cells were evaluated. Systems-level assessment of the immune repertoire revealed a deep and prolonged suppression (weeks 34 to 39 post-HSCT) of the naïve CD4 T cell compartment with relative sparing of regulatory T cells and enrichment of CD69+Ki-67+HLA-DR+ CD8 T cells, independent of the type of GVHD prophylaxis. Early after transplantation (weeks 3 to 4), while patients were still on TAC/SIR or CSA/MTX, we found a relative increase in less-differentiated CD56bright NK cells and NKG2A+CD57-KIR- CD56dim NK cells and a distinct loss of CD16 and DNAM-1 expression. Both regimens led to suppressed proliferative responses ex vivo and functional impairment with preferential loss of cytokine responsiveness and IFN-γ production. Patients who received TAC/SIR as GVHD prophylaxis showed delayed NK cell reconstitution with lower overall NK cell counts and fewer CD56bright and NKG2A+ CD56dim NK cells. Treatment with sirolimus-containing regimens generated similar immune cell profiles as conventional prophylaxis; however, the NK cell compartment seemed to be composed of slightly more mature NK cells. These effects were also present after the completion of GVHD prophylaxis, suggesting that mTOR inhibition with sirolimus leaves a lasting imprint on homeostatic proliferation and NK cell reconstitution following HSCT.
Keywords: Cyclosporin A; Graft-versus-host disease; HSCT; NK cell; Rapamycin; Sirolimus.
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