Preclinical evaluation of NF-κB-triggered dendritic cells expressing the viral oncogenic driver of Merkel cell carcinoma for therapeutic vaccination
Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare but very aggressive skin tumor that develops after integration of a truncated form of the large T-antigen (truncLT) of the Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV) into the host’s genome. Therapeutic vaccination with dendritic cells (DCs) loaded with tumor antigens is an active form of immunotherapy, which intends to direct the immune system towards tumors which express the respective vaccination antigens.
Cytokine-matured monocyte-derived DCs of healthy donors and MCC patients were electroporated with mRNA encoding the truncLT. To permit major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II next to class I presentation, we used an RNA construct in which the antigen was fused to a DCLamp sequence in addition to the unmodified antigen. To further improve their immunogenicity, the DCs were additionally activated by co-transfection with the constitutively active nuclear factor (NF)-κB activator caIKK. These DCs were used to stimulate autologous CD8+ T-cells or a mixture of CD4+ and CD8+ T-cells. Then the percentage of T-cells, specific for the truncLT, was quantified by interferon (IFN)γ ELISpot assays.
Both the truncLT and its DCLamp-fusion were detected within the DCs by flow cytometry, albeit the latter required blocking of the proteasome. The transfection with caIKK upregulated maturation markers and induced cytokine production. After 2–3 rounds of stimulation, the T-cells from 11 out of 13 healthy donors recognized the antigen. DCs without caIKK appeared in comparison less potent in inducing such responses. When using cells derived from MCC patients, we could induce responses for 3 out of 5 patients; however, here the caIKK-transfected DCs did not display their superiority.
These results show that optimized DCs are able to induce MCV-antigen-specific T-cell responses. Therapeutic vaccination with such transfected DCs could direct the immune system against MCC.