Research Article| Volume 71, ISSUE 4, P753-762, October 2019

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Reduction of immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment in cholangiocarcinoma by ex vivo targeting immune checkpoint molecules


      • NK cells and cytotoxic T cells infiltrate poorly into cholangiocarcinoma.
      • Regulatory T cells accumulate in cholangiocarcinoma.
      • PD1, CTLA4 and GITR are over-expressed on tumor-infiltrating T cells in cholangiocarcinoma.
      • Blocking PD1 or CTLA4 or stimulating GITR enhances effector functions of tumor-infiltrating T cells in cholangiocarcinoma.

      Background & Aims

      Cholangiocarcinoma is an aggressive hepatobiliary malignancy originating from biliary tract epithelium. Whether cholangiocarcinoma is responsive to immune checkpoint antibody therapy is unknown, and knowledge of its tumor immune microenvironment is limited. We aimed to characterize tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) in cholangiocarcinoma and assess functional effects of targeting checkpoint molecules on TILs.


      We isolated TILs from resected tumors of patients with cholangiocarcinoma and investigated their compositions compared with their counterparts in tumor-free liver (TFL) tissues and blood, by flow cytometry and immunohistochemistry. We measured expression of immune co-stimulatory and co-inhibitory molecules on TILs, and determined whether targeting these molecules improved ex vivo functions of TILs.


      Proportions of cytotoxic T cells and natural killer cells were decreased, whereas regulatory T cells were increased in tumors compared with TFL. While regulatory T cells accumulated in tumors, the majority of cytotoxic and helper T cells were sequestered at tumor margins, and natural killer cells were excluded from the tumors. The co-stimulatory receptor GITR and co-inhibitory receptors PD1 and CTLA4 were over-expressed on tumor-infiltrating T cells compared with T cells in TFL and blood. Antagonistic targeting of PD1 or CTLA4 or agonistic targeting of GITR enhanced effector molecule production and T cell proliferation in ex vivo stimulation of TILs derived from cholangiocarcinoma. The inter-individual variations in TIL responses to checkpoint treatments were correlated with differences in TIL immune phenotype.


      Decreased numbers of cytotoxic immune cells and increased numbers of suppressor T cells that over-express co-inhibitory receptors suggest that the tumor microenvironment in cholangiocarcinoma is immunosuppressive. Targeting GITR, PD1 or CTLA4 enhances effector functions of tumor-infiltrating T cells, indicating that these molecules are potential immunotherapeutic targets for patients with cholangiocarcinoma.

      Lay summary

      The defense functions of immune cells are suppressed in cholangiocarcinoma tumors. Stimulating or blocking “immune checkpoint” molecules expressed on tumor-infiltrating T cells can enhance the defense functions of these cells. Therefore, these molecules may be promising targets for therapeutic stimulation of immune cells to eradicate the tumors and prevent cancer recurrence in patients with cholangiocarcinoma.

      Graphical abstract


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