Targeting T Cells for the Immune-Modulation of Human Diseases

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Lin, Regina


Li, Qi-Jing

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Dysregulated inflammation underlies the pathogenesis of a myriad of human diseases ranging from cancer to autoimmunity. As coordinators, executers and sentinels of host immunity, T cells represent a compelling target population for immune-modulation. In fact, the antigen-specificity, cytotoxicity and promise of long-lived of immune-protection make T cells ideal vehicles for cancer immunotherapy. Interventions for autoimmune disorders, on the other hand, aim to dampen T cell-mediated inflammation and promote their regulatory functions. Although significant strides have been made in targeting T cells for immune-modulation, current approaches remain less than ideal and leave room for improvement. In this dissertation, I seek to improve on current T cell-targeted immunotherapies, by identifying and preclinically characterizing their mechanisms of action and in vivo therapeutic efficacy.

CD8+ cytotoxic T cells have potent antitumor activity and therefore are leading candidates for use in cancer immunotherapy. The application of CD8+ T cells for clinical use has been limited by the susceptibility of ex vivo-expanded CD8+ T cells to become dysfunctional in response to immunosuppressive microenvironments. To enhance the efficacy of adoptive cell transfer therapy (ACT), we established a novel microRNA-targeting approach that augments CTL cytotoxicity and preserves immunocompetence. Specifically, we screened for miRNAs that modulate cytotoxicity and identified miR-23a as a strong functional repressor of the transcription factor Blimp-1, which promotes CTL cytotoxicity and effector cell differentiation. In a cohort of advanced lung cancer patients, miR-23a was upregulated in tumor-infiltrating CD8+ T cells, and its expression correlated with impaired antitumor potential of patient CD8+ T cells. We determined that tumor-derived TGF-β directly suppresses CD8+ T cell immune function by elevating miR-23a and downregulating Blimp-1. Functional blockade of miR-23a in human CD8+ T cells enhanced granzyme B expression; and in mice with established tumors, immunotherapy with just a small number of tumor-specific CD8+ T cells in which miR-23a was inhibited robustly hindered tumor progression. Together, our findings provide a miRNA-based strategy that subverts the immunosuppression of CD8+ T cells that is often observed during adoptive cell transfer tumor immunotherapy and identify a TGFβ-mediated tumor immune-evasion pathway.

Having established that miR-23a-inhibition can enhance the quality and functional-resilience of anti-tumor CD8+ T cells, especially within the immune-suppressive tumor microenvironment, we went on to interrogate the translational applicability of this strategy in the context of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-modified CD8+ T cells. Although CAR T cells hold immense promise for ACT, CAR T cells are not completely curative due to their in vivo functional suppression by immune barriers ‒ such as TGFβ ‒ within the tumor microenvironment. Since TGFβ poses a substantial immune barrier in the tumor microenvironment, we sought to investigate whether inhibiting miR-23a in CAR T cells can confer immune-competence to afford enhanced tumor clearance. To this end, we retrovirally transduced wildtype and miR-23a-deficient CD8+ T cells with the EGFRvIII-CAR, which targets the PepvIII tumor-specific epitope expressed by glioblastomas (GBM). Our in vitro studies demonstrated that while wildtype EGFRvIII-CAR T cells were vulnerable to functional suppression by TGFβ, miR-23a abrogation rendered EGFRvIII-CAR T cells immune-resistant to TGFβ. Rigorous preclinical studies are currently underway to evaluate the efficacy of miR-23a-deficient EGFRvIII-CAR T cells for GBM immunotherapy.

Lastly, we explored novel immune-suppressive therapies by the biological characterization of pharmacological agents that could target T cells. Although immune-suppressive drugs are classical therapies for a wide range of autoimmune diseases, they are accompanied by severe adverse effects. This motivated our search for novel immune-suppressive agents that are efficacious and lack undesirable side effects. To this end, we explored the potential utility of subglutinol A, a natural product isolated from the endophytic fungus Fusarium subglutinans. We showed that subglutinol A exerts multimodal immune-suppressive effects on activated T cells in vitro: subglutinol A effectively blocked T cell proliferation and survival, while profoundly inhibiting pro-inflammatory IFNγ and IL-17 production by fully-differentiated effector Th1 and Th17 cells. Our data further revealed that subglutinol A might exert its anti-inflammatory effects by exacerbating mitochondrial damage in T cells, but not in innate immune cells or fibroblasts. Additionally, we demonstrated that subglutinol A significantly reduced lymphocytic infiltration into the footpad and ameliorated footpad swelling in the mouse model of Th1-driven delayed-type hypersensitivity. These results suggest the potential of subglutinol A as a novel therapeutic for inflammatory diseases.






Lin, Regina (2015). Targeting T Cells for the Immune-Modulation of Human Diseases. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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