Purpose:

We investigated whether in human head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) high levels of expression of stress keratin 17 (K17) are associated with poor survival and resistance to immunotherapy.

Experimental Design:

We investigated the role of K17 in regulating both the tumor microenvironment and immune responsiveness of HNSCC using a syngeneic mouse HNSCC model, MOC2. MOC2 gives rise to immunologically cold tumors that are resistant to immune-checkpoint blockade (ICB). We engineered multiple, independent K17 knockout (KO) MOC2 cell lines and monitored their growth and response to ICB. We also measured K17 expression in human HNSCC of patients undergoing ICB.

Results:

MOC2 tumors were found to express K17 at high levels. When knocked out for K17 (K17KO MOC2), these cells formed tumors that grew slowly or spontaneously regressed and had a high CD8+ T-cell infiltrate in immunocompetent syngeneic C57BL/6 mice compared with parental MOC2 tumors. This phenotype was reversed when we depleted mice for T cells. Whereas parental MOC2 tumors were resistant to ICB treatment, K17KO MOC2 tumors that did not spontaneously regress were eliminated upon ICB treatment. In a cohort of patients with HNSCC receiving pembrolizumab, high K17 expression correlated with poor response. Single-cell RNA-sequencing analysis revealed broad differences in the immune landscape of K17KO MOC2 tumors compared with parental MOC2 tumors, including differences in multiple lymphoid and myeloid cell types.

Conclusions:

We demonstrate that K17 expression in HNSCC contributes to immune evasion and resistance to ICB treatment by broadly altering immune landscapes of tumors.

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