Abstract

Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICI) have transformed the treatment of melanoma. However, the majority of patients have primary or acquired resistance to ICIs, limiting durable responses and patient survival. IFNγ signaling and the expression of IFNγ-stimulated genes correlate with either response or resistance to ICIs, in a context-dependent manner. While IFNγ-inducible immunostimulatory genes are required for response to ICIs, chronic IFNγ signaling induces the expression of immunosuppressive genes, promoting resistance to these therapies. Here, we show that high levels of Unc-51 like kinase 1 (ULK1) correlate with poor survival in patients with melanoma and overexpression of ULK1 in melanoma cells enhances IFNγ-induced expression of immunosuppressive genes, with minimal effects on the expression of immunostimulatory genes. In contrast, genetic or pharmacologic inhibition of ULK1 reduces expression of IFNγ-induced immunosuppressive genes. ULK1 binds IRF1 in the nuclear compartment of melanoma cells, controlling its binding to the programmed death-ligand 1 promoter region. In addition, pharmacologic inhibition of ULK1 in combination with anti-programmed cell death protein 1 therapy further reduces melanoma tumor growth in vivo. Our data suggest that targeting ULK1 represses IFNγ-dependent immunosuppression. These findings support the combination of ULK1 drug-targeted inhibition with ICIs for the treatment of patients with melanoma to improve response rates and patient outcomes.

Implications:

This study identifies ULK1, activated downstream of IFNγ signaling, as a druggable target to overcome resistance mechanisms to ICI therapy in metastatic melanoma.

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