- •Human iCCA is preferentially infiltrated by CD4+ FOXP3+ Tregs showing a highly activated phenotype.
- •Tumor Tregs display a gene program and transcription factor activities indicating superior immunosuppressive potential.
- •MEOX1 transcription factor specifies the transcriptional and genetic identity of tumor Tregs.
- •MEOX1-induced Tregs strongly correlate with worse overall survival in iCCA.
Background & Aims
The landscape and function of the immune infiltrate of intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (iCCA), a rare, yet aggressive tumor of the biliary tract, remains poorly characterized, limiting development of successful immunotherapies. Herein, we aimed to define the molecular characteristics of tumor-infiltrating leukocytes with a special focus on CD4+ regulatory T cells (Tregs).
We used high-dimensional single-cell technologies to characterize the T-cell and myeloid compartments of iCCA tissues, comparing these with their tumor-free peritumoral and circulating counterparts. We further used genomics and cellular assays to define the iCCA-specific role of a novel transcription factor, mesenchyme homeobox 1 (MEOX1), in Treg biology.
We found poor infiltration of putative tumor-specific CD39+ CD8+ T cells accompanied by abundant infiltration of hyperactivated CD4+ Tregs. Single-cell RNA-sequencing identified an altered network of transcription factors in iCCA-infiltrating compared to peritumoral T cells, suggesting reduced effector functions by tumor-infiltrating CD8+ T cells and enhanced immunosuppression by CD4+ Tregs. Specifically, we found that expression of MEOX1 was highly enriched in tumor-infiltrating Tregs, and demonstrated that MEOX1 overexpression is sufficient to reprogram circulating Tregs to acquire the transcriptional and epigenetic landscape of tumor-infiltrating Tregs. Accordingly, enrichment of the MEOX1-dependent gene program in Tregs was strongly associated with poor prognosis in a large cohort of patients with iCCA.
We observed abundant infiltration of hyperactivated CD4+ Tregs in iCCA tumors along with reduced CD8+ T-cell effector functions. Interfering with hyperactivated Tregs should be explored as an approach to enhance antitumor immunity in iCCA.
Immune cells have the potential to slow or halt the progression of tumors. However, some tumors, such as intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma, are associated with very limited immune responses (and infiltration of cancer-targeting immune cells). Herein, we show that a specific population of regulatory T cells (a type of immune cell that actually suppresses the immune response) are hyperactivated in intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma. Targeting these cells could enable cancer-targeting immune cells to act more effectively and should be looked at as a potential therapeutic approach to this aggressive cancer type.
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Published online: June 20, 2022
Accepted: May 31, 2022
Received in revised form: May 24, 2022
Received: September 10, 2021
Author names in bold designate shared co-first authorship
© 2022 European Association for the Study of the Liver. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.