Identification of antigen-specific T cell receptors (TCRs) is an essential component of the ImmTAC (Immune mobilizing monoclonal TCRs Against Cancer) platform at Immunocore. ImmTAC molecules are formed of a soluble TCR fused to an anti-CD3 effector function that engages, redirects and activates T cells to kill cancerous cells. TCRs recognize peptide antigens presented on the surface of the cancer cell by human leukocyte antigen (HLA). Thus, a fundamental step in our pipeline is to isolate T-cell receptors specific for validated cancer antigens for downstream development. T cells are isolated from whole blood of healthy donors to identify antigen-specific T cell clones using an in vitro model that consists of several stimulation steps. Activated CD8+ T cells are sorted into single cells for subsequent analysis and characterization. Despite the relative success of this approach, often analysis of T-cell clones is limited by low or absent mRNA expression for either or both TCR alpha (TRAV) and beta (TRBV) chains. We predict that TCR downregulation may result from overstimulation of T cells, leading to exhaustion. Here, we aimed to establish an in vitro model of T-cell exhaustion that would enable us to better understand the molecular mechanisms behind this process and thus facilitate method development. We induced extreme conditions of stimulation using CD3/CD28 beads and recombinant human IL-2 (rhIL-2) for 2-3 weeks. Whole-transcriptome analysis of the resulting activated T cells was compared to rested cells using a 5′ single-cell RNA-seq method from 10X Genomics (California, USA). Our preliminary analysis indicates that the activated T cells express several checkpoint inhibitors at higher levels. Our findings will be further investigated by performing full-length RNA sequencing of previously isolated single T-cell clones with low TRAV and/or TRBV detection rates. By identifying a molecular signature that represents the phenotype of exhausted T cells, we can potentially assess the state of T cells in TCR discovery outputs. Most importantly, determination of the expression levels of inhibitory receptors that are responsible for the decrease or loss of TCR expression is expected to enhance our understanding of the potential impact of T-cell exhaustion.

Citation Format: Paraskevi Mallini, Filipa Bravo-Lopes, Karolina Lech, Sunir Malla, Maria Busz, Nathaniel Davies, Jacob Hurst, Luke Williams, Sterenn Davis, Michelle Teng. Assessing the T-cell exhaustion status of TCR discovery outputs [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the AACR Special Conference on Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy; 2018 Nov 27-30; Miami Beach, FL. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Immunol Res 2020;8(4 Suppl):Abstract nr A92.