Intratumoral dendritic cell–CD4+ T helper cell niches enable CD8+ T cell differentiation following PD-1 blockade in hepatocellular carcinoma
Despite no apparent defects in T cell priming and recruitment to tumors, a large subset of T cell rich tumors fail to respond to immune checkpoint blockade (ICB). We leveraged a neoadjuvant anti-PD-1 trial in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), as well as additional samples collected from patients treated off-label, to explore correlates of response to ICB within T cell-rich tumors. We show that ICB response correlated with the clonal expansion of intratumoral CXCL13+CH25H+IL-21+PD-1+CD4+ T helper cells (“CXCL13+ TH”) and Granzyme K+ PD-1+ effector-like CD8+ T cells, whereas terminally exhausted CD39hiTOXhiPD-1hiCD8+ T cells dominated in nonresponders. CD4+ and CD8+ T cell clones that expanded post-treatment were found in pretreatment biopsies. Notably, PD-1+TCF-1+ (Progenitor-exhausted) CD8+ T cells shared clones mainly with effector-like cells in responders or terminally exhausted cells in nonresponders, suggesting that local CD8+ T cell differentiation occurs upon ICB. We found that these Progenitor CD8+ T cells interact with CXCL13+ TH within cellular triads around dendritic cells enriched in maturation and regulatory molecules, or “mregDC”. These results suggest that discrete intratumoral niches that include mregDC and CXCL13+ TH control the differentiation of tumor-specific Progenitor exhasuted CD8+ T cells following ICB.