Hepatoma-intrinsic CCRK inhibition diminishes myeloid-derived suppressor cell immunosuppression and enhances immune-checkpoint blockade efficacy

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Abstract

Objective

Myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs) contribute to tumour immunosuppressive microenvironment and immune-checkpoint blockade resistance. Emerging evidence highlights the pivotal functions of cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs) in tumour immunity. Here we elucidated the role of tumour-intrinsic CDK20, or cell cycle-related kinase (CCRK) on immunosuppression in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

Design

Immunosuppression of MDSCs derived from patients with HCC and relationship with CCRK were determined by flow cytometry, expression analyses and co-culture systems. Mechanistic studies were also conducted in liver-specific CCRK-inducible transgenic (TG) mice and Hepa1–6 orthotopic HCC models using CRISPR/Cas9-mediated Ccrk depletion and liver-targeted nanoparticles for interleukin (IL) 6 trapping. Tumorigenicity and immunophenotype were assessed on single or combined antiprogrammed death-1-ligand 1 (PD-L1) therapy.

Results

Tumour-infiltrating CD11b+CD33+HLA-DR− MDSCs from patients with HCC potently inhibited autologous CD8+T cell proliferation. Concordant overexpression of CCRK and MDSC markers (CD11b/CD33) positively correlated with poorer survival rates. Hepatocellular CCRK stimulated immunosuppressive CD11b+CD33+HLA-DR− MDSC expansion from human peripheral blood mononuclear cells through upregulating IL-6. Mechanistically, CCRK activated nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB) via enhancer of zeste homolog 2 (EZH2) and facilitated NF-κB-EZH2 co-binding to IL-6 promoter. Hepatic CCRK induction in TG mice activated the EZH2/NF-κB/IL-6 cascade, leading to accumulation of polymorphonuclear (PMN) MDSCs with potent T cell suppressive activity. In contrast, inhibiting tumorous Ccrk or hepatic IL-6 increased interferon γ+tumour necrosis factor-α+CD8+ T cell infiltration and impaired tumorigenicity, which was rescued by restoring PMN-MDSCs. Notably, tumorous Ccrk depletion upregulated PD-L1 expression and increased intratumorous CD8+ T cells, thus enhancing PD-L1 blockade efficacy to eradicate HCC.

Conclusion

Our results delineate an immunosuppressive mechanism of the hepatoma-intrinsic CCRK signalling and highlight an overexpressed kinase target whose inhibition might empower HCC immunotherapy.

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