CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) have potent antitumor activity and therefore are leading candidates for use in tumor immunotherapy. The application of CTLs for clinical use has been limited by the susceptibility of ex vivo–expanded CTLs to become dysfunctional in response to immunosuppressive microenvironments. Here, we developed a microRNA-targeting (miRNA-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 CTLs, and expression correlated with impaired antitumor potential of patient CTLs. We determined that tumor-derived TGF-β directly suppresses CTL immune function by elevating miR-23a and downregulating BLIMP-1. Functional blocking of miR-23a in human CTLs enhanced granzyme B expression, and in mice with established tumors, immunotherapy with just a small number of tumor-specific CTLs in which miR-23a was inhibited robustly hindered tumor progression. Together, our findings provide a miRNA-based strategy that subverts the immunosuppression of CTLs that is often observed during adoptive cell transfer tumor immunotherapy and identify a TGF-β–mediated tumor immune-evasion pathway.
Regina Lin, Ling Chen, Gang Chen, Chunyan Hu, Shan Jiang, Jose Sevilla, Ying Wan, John H. Sampson, Bo Zhu, Qi-Jing Li