Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) trials have evaluated CTLA-4 and/or PD-(L)1 blockade in patients with advanced disease in which bulky tumor burden and limited time to develop antitumor T cells may have contributed to poor clinical efficacy. Here, we evaluated peripheral blood and tumor T cells from patients with PDAC receiving neoadjuvant chemoradiation plus anti–PD-1 (pembrolizumab) versus chemoradiation alone. We analyzed whether PD-1 blockade successfully reactivated T cells in the blood and/or tumor to determine whether lack of clinical benefit could be explained by lack of reactivated T cells versus other factors.

Experimental Design:

We used single-cell transcriptional profiling and TCR clonotype tracking to identify TCR clonotypes from blood that match clonotypes in the tumor.


PD-1 blockade increases the flux of TCR clonotypes entering cell cycle and induces an IFNγ signature like that seen in patients with other GI malignancies who respond to PD-1 blockade. However, these reactivated T cells have a robust signature of NF-κB signaling not seen in cases of PD-1 antibody response. Among paired samples between blood and tumor, several of the newly cycling clonotypes matched activated T-cell clonotypes observed in the tumor.


Cytotoxic T cells in the blood of patients with PDAC remain sensitive to reinvigoration by PD-1 blockade, and some have tumor-recognizing potential. Although these T cells proliferate and have a signature of IFN exposure, they also upregulate NF-κB signaling, which potentially counteracts the beneficial effects of anti–PD-1 reinvigoration and marks these T cells as non-productive contributors to antitumor immunity.

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