The specific BCL-2 small molecule inhibitor venetoclax induces apoptosis in a wide range of malignancies, which has led to rapid clinical expansion in its use alone and in combination with chemotherapy and immune-based therapies against a myriad of cancer types. While lymphocytes, and T cells in particular, rely heavily on BCL-2 for survival and function, the effects of small molecule blockade of the BCL-2 family on surviving immune cells is not fully understood. We aimed to better understand the effect of systemic treatment with venetoclax on regulatory T cells (Treg), which are relatively resistant to cell death induced by specific drugging of BCL-2 compared to other T cells. We found that BCL-2 blockade altered Treg transcriptional profiles and mediated Treg plasticity toward a TH17-like Treg phenotype, resulting in increased IL17A production in lymphoid organs and within the tumor microenvironment. Aligned with previously described augmented antitumor effects observed when combining venetoclax with anti–PD-1 checkpoint inhibition, we also demonstrated that Treg-specific genetic BCL-2 knockout combined with anti–PD-1 induced tumor regression and conferred overlapping genetic changes with venetoclax-treated Tregs. As long-term combination therapies using venetoclax gain more traction in the clinic, an improved understanding of the immune-modulatory effects caused by venetoclax may allow expansion of its use against malignancies and immune-related diseases.

Synopsis: The authors show that the BCL-2 inhibitor venetoclax results in Treg plasticity. The shift toward a TH17-like phenotype augments the antitumor efficacy of anti–PD-1, suggesting that venetoclax may yield therapeutic benefit against a wide array of malignancies.

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