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Epigenetic stability of exhausted T cells limits durability of reinvigoration by PD-1 blockade

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Science  02 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6316, pp. 1160-1165
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2807

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The epigenetics of exhaustion

During cancer or chronic infection, T cells become dysfunctional, eventually acquiring an “exhausted” phenotype. Immunotherapies aim to reverse this state. Using a mouse model of chronic infection, two studies now show that the epigenetic profile of exhausted T cells differs substantially from those of effector and memory T cells, suggesting that exhausted T cells are a distinct lineage (see the Perspective by Turner and Russ). Sen et al. defined specific functional modules of enhancers that are also conserved in exhausted human T cells. Pauken et al. examined the epigenetic profile of exhausted T cells after immunotherapy. Although there was transcriptional rewiring, the cells never acquired a memory T cell phenotype. Thus, epigenetic regulation may limit the success of immunotherapies.

Science, this issue p. 1104, p. 1165; see also p. 1160

Abstract

Blocking Programmed Death–1 (PD-1) can reinvigorate exhausted CD8 T cells (TEX) and improve control of chronic infections and cancer. However, whether blocking PD-1 can reprogram TEX into durable memory T cells (TMEM) is unclear. We found that reinvigoration of TEX in mice by PD-L1 blockade caused minimal memory development. After blockade, reinvigorated TEX became reexhausted if antigen concentration remained high and failed to become TMEM upon antigen clearance. TEX acquired an epigenetic profile distinct from that of effector T cells (TEFF) and TMEM cells that was minimally remodeled after PD-L1 blockade. This finding suggests that TEX are a distinct lineage of CD8 T cells. Nevertheless, PD-1 pathway blockade resulted in transcriptional rewiring and reengagement of effector circuitry in the TEX epigenetic landscape. These data indicate that epigenetic fate inflexibility may limit current immunotherapies.

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