Theranostics 2021; 11(7):3392-3416. doi:10.7150/thno.52435

Research Paper

ILT4 inhibition prevents TAM- and dysfunctional T cell-mediated immunosuppression and enhances the efficacy of anti-PD-L1 therapy in NSCLC with EGFR activation

Xiaozheng Chen1,2, Aiqin Gao1, Fang Zhang1, Zijiang Yang2, Shuyun Wang1, Yuying Fang1, Juan Li1, Jingnan Wang1, Wenjing Shi2, Linlin Wang3, Yan Zheng4, Yuping Sun1,5✉

1. Department of Oncology, Jinan Central Hospital, Cheeloo College of Medicine, Shandong University, Jinan, Shandong 250013, P. R. China.
2. Cheeloo College of Medicine, Shandong University, Jinan, Shandong 250012, P. R. China.
3. Department of Radiation Oncology, Shandong Cancer Hospital and Institute, Shandong First Medical University and Shandong Academy of Medical Sciences, Jinan, Shandong 250012, P. R. China.
4. Research Center of Translational Medicine, Jinan Central Hospital, Cheeloo College of Medicine, Shandong University, Jinan, Shandong 250013, P. R. China.
5. Department of Oncology, Jinan Central Hospital affiliated to Shandong First Medical University, Jinan, Shandong 250013, P. R. China.

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Chen X, Gao A, Zhang F, Yang Z, Wang S, Fang Y, Li J, Wang J, Shi W, Wang L, Zheng Y, Sun Y. ILT4 inhibition prevents TAM- and dysfunctional T cell-mediated immunosuppression and enhances the efficacy of anti-PD-L1 therapy in NSCLC with EGFR activation. Theranostics 2021; 11(7):3392-3416. doi:10.7150/thno.52435. Available from

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Rationale: Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) against the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway showed limited success in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients, especially in those with activating epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutations. Elucidation of the mechanisms underlying EGFR-mediated tumor immune escape and the development of effective immune therapeutics are urgently needed. Immunoglobulin-like transcript (ILT) 4, a crucial immunosuppressive molecule initially identified in myeloid cells, is enriched in solid tumor cells and promotes the malignant behavior of NSCLC. However, the upstream regulation of ILT4 overexpression and its function in tumor immunity of NSCLC with EGFR activation remains unclear.

Methods: ILT4 expression and EGFR phosphorylation in human NSCLC tissues and cell lines were analyzed using immunohistochemistry (IHC), real-time PCR, Western blotting, immunofluorescence, and flow cytometry. The molecular signaling for EGFR-regulated ILT4 expression was investigated using mRNA microarray and The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) database analyses and then confirmed by Western blotting. The regulation of tumor cell proliferation and apoptosis by ILT4 was examined by CCK8 proliferation and apoptosis assays. The impact of ILT4 and PD-L1 on tumor-associated macrophage (TAM) recruitment and polarization was evaluated using Transwell migration assay, flow cytometry, enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and real-time PCR, while their impact on T cell survival and cytotoxicity was analyzed by CFSE proliferation assay, apoptotic assay, flow cytometry, ELISA and cytolytic assay. Tumor immunotherapy models targeting at paired Ig-like receptor B (PIR-B, an ortholog of ILT4 in mouse)/ILT4 and/or PD-L1 were established in C57BL/6 mice inoculated with stable EGFR- overexpressing Lewis lung carcinoma (LLC) cells and in humanized NSG mice inoculated with EGFR mutant, gefitinib-resistant PC9 (PC9-GR) or EGFR-overexpressing wild type H1299 cells. PIR-B and ILT4 inhibition was implemented by infection of specific knockdown lentivirus and PD-L1 was blocked using human/mouse neutralizing antibodies. The tumor growth model was established in NSG mice injected with PIR-B-downregulated LLC cells to evaluate the effect of PIR-B on tumor proliferation. The frequencies and phenotypes of macrophages and T cells in mouse spleens and blood were detected by flow cytometry while those in tumor tissues were determined by IHC and immunofluorescence.

Results: We found that ILT4 expression in tumor cells was positively correlated with EGFR phosphorylation in human NSCLC tissues. Using NSCLC cell lines, we demonstrated that ILT4 was upregulated by both tyrosine kinase mutation-induced and epidermal growth factor (EGF)-dependent EGFR activation and subsequent AKT/ERK1/2 phosphorylation. Overexpressed ILT4 in EGFR-activated tumor cells induced TAM recruitment and M2-like polarization, which impaired T cell function. ILT4 also directly inhibited T cell proliferation, cytotoxicity, and IFN-γ expression and secretion. In EGFR-activated cell lines in vitro and in wild-type EGFR-activated C57BL/6 and humanized NSG immunotherapy models in vivo, either ILT4 (PIR-B) or PD-L1 inhibition enhanced anti-tumor immunity and suppressed tumor progression by counteracting TAM- and dysfunctional T cell- induced immuno-suppressive TME; the combined inhibition of both molecules showed the most dramatic tumor retraction. Surprisingly, in EGFR mutant, TKI resistant humanized NSG immunotherapy model, ILT4 inhibition alone rather than in combination with a PD-L1 inhibitor suppressed tumor growth and immune evasion.

Conclusions: ILT4 was induced by activation of EGFR-AKT and ERK1/2 signaling in NSCLC cells. Overexpressed ILT4 suppressed tumor immunity by recruiting M2-like TAMs and impairing T cell response, while ILT4 inhibition prevented immunosuppression and tumor promotion. Furthermore, ILT4 inhibition enhanced the efficacy of PD-L1 inhibitor in EGFR wild-type but not in EGFR mutant NSCLC. Our study identified novel mechanisms for EGFR-mediated tumor immune escape, and provided promising immunotherapeutic strategies for patients with EGFR-activated NSCLC.

Keywords: ILT4, non-small cell lung cancer, EGFR activation, tumor-associated macrophages, T cells, immunotherapy