Theranostics 2020; 10(20):9332-9347. doi:10.7150/thno.47137

Research Paper

USP7 targeting modulates anti-tumor immune response by reprogramming Tumor-associated Macrophages in Lung Cancer

Xiaomeng Dai1*, Lisen Lu1*, Suke Deng1, Jingshu Meng1, Chao Wan1, Jing Huang1, Yajie Sun1, Yan Hu1, Bian Wu1, Gang Wu1, Jonathan F. Lovell2, Honglin Jin1✉, Kunyu Yang1✉

1. Cancer Center, Union Hospital, Tongji Medical College, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan 430022, China.
2. Department of Biomedical Engineering, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Buffalo, New York 14260, USA.
*These authors contributed equally to this work.

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( See for full terms and conditions.
Dai X, Lu L, Deng S, Meng J, Wan C, Huang J, Sun Y, Hu Y, Wu B, Wu G, Lovell JF, Jin H, Yang K. USP7 targeting modulates anti-tumor immune response by reprogramming Tumor-associated Macrophages in Lung Cancer. Theranostics 2020; 10(20):9332-9347. doi:10.7150/thno.47137. Available from

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Background: Tumor associated macrophages (TAMs) have strong plasticity and if reprogrammed, can clear tumor cells and regulate the adaptive immune system for cancer immunotherapy. Deubiquitinating enzymes (DUBs), which can remove ubiquitin (Ub) from Ub-modified substrates, have been associated with oncogenic metabolism but are not well-known for regulating TAMs repolarization.

Methods: The expression of DUB related genes in macrophages (MΦs) was detected by reverse transcription-PCR. Flow cytometry and immunofluorescence were used to detect the changes of immune cells in the tumor microenvironment and spleen, including M1 (CD11b+F4/80+CD86+CD206-), and M2 (CD11b+F4/80+CD86-CD206+) MΦs, and IFN-γ+CD8+T cells. A proliferation assay was used to determine the effect of M2 MΦs treated with a USP7 inhibitor on T cell proliferation. Western blotting was used to detect the expression of USP7 and the activation of the MAPK pathway. The TGCA database was used to assess the role of USP7 in the immune microenvironment of human lung adenocarcinoma (LUAD).

Results: 51 DUB genes were screened and USP7 was identified as a highly expressed gene in M2 but not M1 MΦs. Specific silencing of USP7 using siRNA or USP7 inhibitors led to phenotypical and functional changes in M2 MΦs, favoring CD8+T cells proliferation in vitro. USP7 inhibitors delayed tumor growth in mice with Lewis lung carcinoma, and promoted tumor infiltration of M1 MΦs and IFN-γ+CD8+T cells. Depletion of TAMs attenuated these therapeutic effects. USP7 inhibition was shown to mediate MΦs reprogramming by activating the p38 MAPK pathway. Administration of USP7 inhibitors increased the expression of programmed cell death ligand 1 (PD-L1) in tumors, while blocking programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) provided an effective anti-tumor response. Clinical databases suggest that high expression of USP7 in LUAD was negatively correlated with innate and adaptive immunity.

Conclusions: Taken together, these results provide evidence to suggest that therapeutic approaches targeting USP7, in combination with immunotherapy, should be considered for lung cancer treatment.

Keywords: Deubiquitinating enzymes, USP7, tumor-associated macrophages, macrophages reprogramming, anti-PD-1