Immunostimulatory RNA leads to functional reprogramming of myeloid-derived suppressor cells in pancreatic cancer

Metzger, P., Kirchleitner, S. V., Kluge, M., Koenig, L. M., Horth, C., Rambuscheck, C. A., Bohmer, D., Ahlfeld, J., Kobold, S., Friedel, C. C., Endres, S., Schnurr, M., and Duewell, P. (2019). J Immunother Cancer 7, 288


BACKGROUND: The tumor microenvironment (TME) combines features of regulatory cytokines and immune cell populations to evade the recognition by the immune system. Myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSC) comprise populations of immature myeloid cells in tumor-bearing hosts with a highly immunosuppressive capacity. We could previously identify RIG-I-like helicases (RLH) as targets for the immunotherapy of pancreatic cancer inducing immunogenic tumor cell death and type I interferons (IFN) as key mediators linking innate with adaptive immunity.

METHODS: Mice with orthotopically implanted KrasG12D p53fl/R172H Ptf1a-Cre (KPC) pancreatic tumors were treated intravenously with the RLH ligand polyinosinic-polycytidylic acid (poly(I:C)), and the immune cell environment in tumor and spleen was characterized. A comprehensive analysis of the suppressive capacity as well as the whole transcriptomic profile of isolated MDSC subsets was performed. Antigen presentation capability of MDSC from mice with ovalbumin (OVA)-expressing tumors was investigated in T cell proliferation assays. The role of IFN in MDSC function was investigated in Ifnar1-/- mice.

RESULTS: MDSC were strongly induced in orthotopic KPC-derived pancreatic cancer, and frequencies of MDSC subsets correlated with tumor weight and G-CSF serum levels, whereas other immune cell populations decreased. Administration of the RLH-ligand induced a IFN-driven immune response, with increased activation of T cells and dendritic cells (DC), and a reduced suppressive capacity of both polymorphonuclear (PMN)-MDSC and monocytic (M)-MDSC fractions. Whole transcriptomic analysis confirmed an IFN-driven gene signature of MDSC, a switch from a M2/G2- towards a M1/G1-polarized phenotype, and the induction of genes involved in the antigen presentation machinery. Nevertheless, MDSC failed to present tumor antigen to T cells. Interestingly, we found MDSC with reduced suppressive function in Ifnar1-deficient hosts; however, there was a common flaw in immune cell activation, which was reflected by defective immune cell activation and tumor control.

CONCLUSIONS: We provide evidence that the treatment with immunostimulatory RNA reprograms the TME of pancreatic cancer by reducing the suppressive activity of MDSC, polarizing myeloid cells into a M1-like state and recruiting DC. We postulate that tumor cell-targeting combination strategies may benefit from RLH-based TME remodeling. In addition, we provide novel insights into the dual role of IFN signaling in MDSC's suppressive function and provide evidence that host-intrinsic IFN signaling may be critical for MDSC to gain suppressive function during tumor development.