Despite breakthroughs in immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI) immunotherapy, not all human cancers respond to ICI immunotherapy and only fraction of patients with responsive tumors have a durable response to current ICI immunotherapy. This clinical conundrum suggests that additional immune checkpoints may exist, particularly in cancers resistant to current ICI immunotherapy, such as colorectal cancer. We report here that interferon regulatory factor 8 (IRF8) deficiency led to impairment of cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) activation in a peptide vaccine model and allowed allograft transplant tumor tolerance. These effects were associated with upregulation of the CTL surface marker CD44. However, analysis of chimeric mice with competitive reconstitution of wild type and IRF8 KO bone marrow cells as well as mice with IRF8 deficiency only in T cells indicated that IRF8 plays no intrinsic role in CTL activation. Instead, IRF8 functioned as a repressor of osteopontin (OPN), the physiological ligand for CD44 on T cells, in CD11b+Ly6CloLy6G+ myeloid cells and OPN acted as a potent T cell suppressor. In vitro stimulation of CTLs in the presence of OPN resulted in decreased expression of activation markers CD69 and CD25 and inhibited proliferation and interferon gamma (IFNg) secretion. Expression of OPN was found to be upregulated in both myeloid cells and colon epithelial cells following silencing of IRF8 expression. IRF8 bound to the Spp1 promoter, which encodes OPN, to repress OPN expression in colon epithelial cells. Correspondingly, human colon carcinoma cells exhibited decreased IRF8 and increased OPN expression. These increased OPN levels inhibited human PBMC proliferation and IFNg secretion. The elevated expression of OPN in human colon carcinoma was correlated with decreased patient survival. Our data indicates that myeloid and tumor cell-expressed OPN acts as a novel immune checkpoint to suppress T cell activation and confer host tumor immune tolerance. Blockade of this checkpoint may expand the pool of patients who may benefit from ICI immunotherapy.

Citation Format: John D. Klement, Amy V. Paschall, Priscilla S. Redd, Mohammed L. Ibrahim, Chunwan Lu, Dafeng Yang, Esteban Celis, Scott I. Abrams, Keiko Ozato, Kebin Liu. The IRF8-osteopontin-CD44 axis functions as an immune checkpoint to control CD8+ T cell activation and tumor immune evasion [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2019; 2019 Mar 29-Apr 3; Atlanta, GA. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2019;79(13 Suppl):Abstract nr 3226.