Although strategies incorporating immune checkpoint inhibition, e.g. PD-1/PD-L1 blockade, are achieving unprecedented successes and increasingly becoming incorporated into standard of care regimens for cancer patients, high rates of resistance still limit the potential efficacy. Therapeutic improvement requires a thorough understanding of the biological process of resistance. To date there have been few studies reporting mechanisms of resistance to PD-L1 blockade. We have explored the resistance mechanisms to functional PD-L1 loss in preclinical lung cancer models by using pharmacological and genetic approaches (PD-L1 blocking antibody treatment or CRISPR/Cas9-mediated deletion of PD-L1 on tumor cells). The molecular and immune profiles of the tumor microenvironment were evaluated in mutant K-ras/p53 (KP) GEM lung cancer models and multiple immunocompetent syngeneic models (both KP and Lewis lung cancer). Additionally, to determine the applicability of the results to patients with lung cancer, we analyzed 259 patient tumor specimens with IHC staining and evaluated the immune markers in TCGA datasets (adenocarcinoma and squamous) and the MD Anderson PROSPECT dataset. We observed that lung tumors gained resistance to anti-PD-L1 antibody treatment over time, and that the up-regulation of CD38 on tumor cells accounted for the treatment resistance. We also observed the same resistance mechanism caused by CD38 up-regulation in PD-L1 KO mice bearing PD-L1 KO Lewis lung tumors generated with the CRISPR/Cas9 system. Manipulation of CD38 on a panel of lung cancer cell lines, demonstrated that CD38 inhibits CD8+ T cell proliferation, antitumor cytokine secretion, and tumor cell killing capability in vitro and in vivo. Furthermore, to test whether CD38 blockade might be therapeutically efficacious to counter anti-PD-L1 resistance, we applied the combination therapy of anti-CD38 and anti-PD-L1 in lung cancer animal models and demonstrated dramatic therapeutic benefit on primary tumor growth and metastasis. Bioinformatic analyses of the patient tumor databases revealed a strong correlation between CD38 expression and an immune suppressive inflammatory signature. Finally, in 259 lung cancer specimens, 18.5% of cases exhibited positive staining for CD38 on tumor cells. Based upon our studies, we conclude that the up-regulation of CD38 on tumor cells is a major mechanism of resistance to anti-PD-L1 therapy, and that CD38 is a novel immune checkpoint that inhibits CD8+ T cell function. The blockade of CD38 and PD-L1 is a rational combination to prevent immune resistance and increase the response rate for lung cancer patients.

Citation Format: Limo Chen, Lixia Diao, Yongbin Yang, Xiaohui Yi, Jaime Rodriguez, Youhong Fan, Leticia Rodriguez, Jared Fradette, Christin Ungewiss, Jonothan Roybal, Jingfen Zhu, Jing Wang, Lauren Byers, Stephen Ullrich, Ignacio Wistuba, John Heymach, Xiao-Feng Qin, Don Gibbons. CD38 blockade overcomes the immune resistance to anti-PD-L1 therapy by boosting CD8 T cell response [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2017; 2017 Apr 1-5; Washington, DC. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2017;77(13 Suppl):Abstract nr 567. doi:10.1158/1538-7445.AM2017-567