Patients with advanced non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) harboring activating EGFR mutations are initially responsive to tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKI). However, therapeutic resistance eventually emerges, often via secondary EGFR mutations or EGFR-independent mechanisms such as epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition. Treatment options after EGFR-TKI resistance are limited as anti-PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors typically display minimal benefit. Given that IL6 is associated with worse outcomes in patients with NSCLC, we investigate whether IL6 in part contributes to this immunosuppressed phenotype.
We utilized a syngeneic genetically engineered mouse model (GEMM) of EGFR-mutant NSCLC to investigate the effects of IL6 on the tumor microenvironment and the combined efficacy of IL6 inhibition and anti-PD-1 therapy. Corresponding in vitro studies used EGFR-mutant human cell lines and clinical specimens.
We identified that EGFR-mutant tumors which have oncogene-independent acquired resistance to EGFR-TKIs were more mesenchymal and had markedly enhanced IL6 secretion. In EGFR-mutant GEMMs, IL6 depletion enhanced activation of infiltrating natural killer (NK)- and T-cell subpopulations and decreased immunosuppressive regulatory T and Th17 cell populations. Inhibition of IL6 increased NK- and T cell–mediated killing of human osimertinib-resistant EGFR-mutant NSCLC tumor cells in cell culture. IL6 blockade sensitized EGFR-mutant GEMM tumors to PD-1 inhibitors through an increase in tumor-infiltrating IFNγ+ CD8+ T cells.
These data indicate that IL6 is upregulated in EGFR-mutant NSCLC tumors with acquired EGFR-TKI resistance and suppressed T- and NK-cell function. IL6 blockade enhanced antitumor immunity and efficacy of anti-PD-1 therapy warranting future clinical combinatorial investigations.