Cyclin D–CDK4 kinase destabilizes PD-L1 via cullin 3–SPOP to control cancer immune surveillance

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Abstract

Treatments that target immune checkpoints, such as the one mediated by programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) and its ligand PD-L1, have been approved for treating human cancers with durable clinical benefit1,2. However, many patients with cancer fail to respond to compounds that target the PD-1 and PD-L1 interaction, and the underlying mechanism(s) is not well understood3,4,5. Recent studies revealed that response to PD-1–PD-L1 blockade might correlate with PD-L1 expression levels in tumour cells6,7. Hence, it is important to understand the mechanistic pathways that control PD-L1 protein expression and stability, which can offer a molecular basis to improve the clinical response rate and efficacy of PD-1–PD-L1 blockade in patients with cancer. Here we show that PD-L1 protein abundance is regulated by cyclin D–CDK4 and the cullin 3–SPOP E3 ligase via proteasome-mediated degradation. Inhibition of CDK4 and CDK6 (hereafter CDK4/6)in vivoincreases PD-L1 protein levels by impeding cyclin D–CDK4-mediated phosphorylation of speckle-type POZ protein (SPOP) and thereby promoting SPOP degradation by the anaphase-promoting complex activator FZR1. Loss-of-function mutations inSPOPcompromise ubiquitination-mediated PD-L1 degradation, leading to increased PD-L1 levels and reduced numbers of tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes in mouse tumours and in primary human prostate cancer specimens. Notably, combining CDK4/6 inhibitor treatment with anti-PD-1 immunotherapy enhances tumour regression and markedly improves overall survival rates in mouse tumour models. Our study uncovers a novel molecular mechanism for regulating PD-L1 protein stability by a cell cycle kinase and reveals the potential for using combination treatment with CDK4/6 inhibitors and PD-1–PD-L1 immune checkpoint blockade to enhance therapeutic efficacy for human cancers.

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