Enhancing natural killer (NK) cell–based cancer immunotherapy by overcoming immunosuppression is an area of intensive research. Here, we have demonstrated that the anti-CD137 agonist urelumab can overcome TGFβ-mediated inhibition of human NK-cell proliferation and antitumor function. Transcriptomic, immunophenotypic, and functional analyses showed that CD137 costimulation modified the transcriptional program induced by TGFβ on human NK cells by rescuing their proliferation in response to IL2, preserving their expression of activating receptors (NKG2D) and effector molecules (granzyme B, IFNγ) while allowing the acquisition of tumor-homing/retention features (CXCR3, CD103). Activated NK cells cultured in the presence of TGFβ1 and CD137 agonist recovered CCL5 and IFNγ secretion and showed enhanced direct and antibody-dependent cytotoxicity upon restimulation with cancer cells. Trastuzumab treatment of fresh breast carcinoma–derived multicellular cultures induced CD137 expression on tumor-infiltrating CD16+ NK cells, enabling the action of urelumab, which fostered tumor-infiltrating NK cells and recapitulated the enhancement of CCL5 and IFNγ production. Bioinformatic analysis pointed to IFNG as the driver of the association between NK cells and clinical response to trastuzumab in patients with HER2-positive primary breast cancer, highlighting the translational relevance of the CD137 costimulatory axis for enhancing IFNγ production. Our data reveals CD137 as a targetable checkpoint for overturning TGFβ constraints on NK-cell antitumor responses.

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