Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy has led to tremendous successes in the treatment of B-cell malignancies. However, a large fraction of treated patients relapse, often with disease expressing reduced levels of the target antigen. Here, we report that exposing CD19+ B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL) cells to CD19 CAR T cells reduced CD19 expression within hours. Initially, CD19 CAR T cells caused clustering of CD19 at the T cell–leukemia cell interface followed by CD19 internalization and decreased CD19 surface expression on the B-ALL cells. CD19 expression was then repressed by transcriptional rewiring. Using single-cell RNA sequencing and single-cell assay for transposase-accessible chromatin using sequencing, we demonstrated that a subset of refractory CD19low cells sustained decreased CD19 expression through transcriptional programs of physiologic B-cell activation and germinal center reaction. Inhibiting B-cell activation programs with the Bruton's tyrosine kinase inhibitor ibrutinib increased the cytotoxicity of CD19 CAR T cells without affecting CAR T-cell viability. These results demonstrate transcriptional plasticity as an underlying mechanism of escape from CAR T cells and highlight the importance of combining CAR T-cell therapy with targeted therapies that aim to overcome this plasticity.

See related Spotlight by Zhao and Melenhorst, p. 1040

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