The ability of cancers to evade immune surveillance and resist immunotherapy raises a fundamental question of how tumor cells survive in the presence of a competent immune system. Studies to address this question have primarily focused on mechanisms by which tumor cells avoid recognition by or induce tolerance in the immune system. However, little is known about whether cancer cells also acquire an intrinsic ability to resist killing by immune effectors. We find that cancer cells enhance their ability to withstand an attack by cytotoxic immune effector cells via acquisition of specific genetic alterations that interfere with the shared mitochondrial death signaling pathway entrained by granzyme B, IFN-γ, and Apo2 ligand/tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis inducing ligand (Apo2L/TRAIL), three key mediators of immunologic cell-mediated cytotoxicity. We show that the coexistence of specific mitochondrial signaling defects (either deletion of Bax, overexpression of Bcl-xL, or deletion of Smac) with expression of X-linked inhibitor of apoptosis protein decreases the sensitivity of cancer cells to IFN-γ/Apo2L/TRAIL- or granzyme B-induced apoptosis, lymphocyte-mediated cytotoxicity in vitro, and adoptive cellular immunotherapy in vivo. Conversely, negating X-linked inhibitor of apoptosis protein expression or function in tumor cells with defective mitochondrial signaling enables direct activation of caspase-3/-7 by granzyme B or Apo2L/TRAIL, and restores their susceptibility to immunologic cytotoxicity. These findings identify an important mechanism by which cancers evade elimination by immune effector cells and suggest that cancer immunotherapy might be improved by concurrent strategies to alleviate or circumvent the intrinsic mitochondrial death signaling defects that help cancer cells resist immunologic cytotoxicity.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cancer Research