Elevated immunity to cancer-expressed antigens can be detected in people with no history of cancer and may contribute to cancer prevention. We have previously reported that MHC-restricted phosphopeptides are cancer-expressed antigens and targets of immune recognition. However, the extent to which this immunity reflects prior or ongoing phosphopeptide exposures was not investigated. In this study, we found that preexisting immune memory to cancer-expressed phosphopeptides was evident in most healthy donors, but the breadth among donors was highly variable. Although three phosphopeptides were recognized by most donors, suggesting exposures to common microbial/infectious agents, most of the 205 tested phosphopeptides were not recognized by peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from any donor and the remainder were recognized by only 1 to 3 donors. In longitudinal analyses of 2 donors, effector immune response profiles suggested active reexposures to a subset of phosphopeptides. These findings suggest that the immunogens generating most phosphopeptide-specific immune memory are rare infectious agents or incipient cancer cells with distinct phosphoproteome dysregulations, and that repetitive immunogenic exposures occur in individual donors. Phosphopeptide-specific immunity in PBMCs and tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes from ovarian cancer patients was limited, regardless of whether the phosphopeptide was expressed on the tumor. However, 4 of 10 patients responded to 1 to 2 immunodominant phosphopeptides, and 1 showed an elevated effector response to a tumor-expressed phosphopeptide. As the tumors from these patients displayed many phosphopeptides, these data are consistent with lack of prior exposure or impaired ability to respond to some phosphopeptides and suggest that enhancing phosphopeptide-specific T-cell responses could be a useful approach to improve tumor immunotherapy.

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