Background: T cells exhibit heterogeneous functional states in the tumor microenvironment. Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) can reinvigorate only the stem cell-like progenitor exhausted T cells, which suggests that inhibiting the exhaustion progress will improve the efficacy of immunotherapy. Thus, regulatory factors promoting T cell exhaustion could serve as potential targets for delaying the process and improving ICI efficacy.
Methods: We analyzed the single-cell transcriptome data derived from human melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) samples and classified the tumor-infiltrating (TI) CD8+ T cell population based on PDCD1 (PD-1) levels, i.e., PDCD1-high and PDCD1-low cells. Additionally, we identified differentially expressed genes as candidate factors regulating intra-tumoral T cell exhaustion. The co-expression of candidate genes with immune checkpoint (IC) molecules in the TI CD8+ T cells was confirmed by single-cell trajectory and flow cytometry analyses. The lossof-function effect of the candidate regulator was examined by a cell-based knockdown assay. The clinical effect of the candidate regulator was evaluated based on the overall survival and anti-PD-1 responses.
Results: We retrieved many known factors for regulating T cell exhaustion among the differentially expressed genes between PDCD1-high and PDCD1-low subsets of the TI CD8+ T cells in human melanoma and NSCLC. TOX was the only transcription factor (TF) predicted in both tumor types. TOX levels tend to increase as CD8+ T cells become more exhausted. Flow cytometry analysis revealed a correlation between TOX expression and severity of intra-tumoral T cell exhaustion. TOX knockdown in the human TI CD8+ T cells resulted in downregulation of PD-1, TIM-3, TIGIT, and CTLA-4, which suggests that TOX promotes intra-tumoral T cell exhaustion by upregulating IC proteins in cancer. Finally, the TOX level in the TI T cells was found to be highly predictive of overall survival and anti-PD-1 efficacy in melanoma and NSCLC.
Conclusions: We predicted the regulatory factors involved in T cell exhaustion using single-cell transcriptome profiles of human TI lymphocytes. TOX promoted intra-tumoral CD8+ T cell exhaustion via upregulation of IC molecules. This suggested that TOX inhibition can potentially impede T cell exhaustion and improve ICI efficacy. Additionally, TOX expression in the TI T cells can be used for patient stratification during anti-tumor treatments, including anti-PD-1 immunotherapy.