Vα24-invariant natural killer T cells (NKT) possess innate antitumor properties that can be exploited for cancer immunotherapy. We have shown previously that the CD62L+ central memory-like subset of these cells drives the in vivo antitumor activity of NKTs, but molecular mediators of NKT central memory differentiation remain unknown. Here, we demonstrate that relative to CD62L cells, CD62L+ NKTs express a higher level of the gene encoding the Wnt/β-catenin transcription factor lymphoid enhancer binding factor 1 (LEF1) and maintain active Wnt/β-catenin signaling. CRISPR/Cas9-mediated LEF1 knockout reduced CD62L+ frequency after antigenic stimulation, whereas Wnt/β-catenin activator Wnt3a ligand increased CD62L+ frequency. LEF1 overexpression promoted NKT expansion and limited exhaustion following serial tumor challenge and was sufficient to induce a central memory–like transcriptional program in NKTs. In mice, NKTs expressing a GD2-specific chimeric-antigen receptor (CAR) with LEF1 demonstrated superior control of neuroblastoma xenograft tumors compared with control CAR-NKTs. These results identify LEF1 as a transcriptional activator of the NKT central memory program and advance development of NKT cell–based immunotherapy.

See related Spotlight by Van Kaer, p. 144

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