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BACKGROUND: Programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) is an important immune checkpoint protein that can be regarded as a pan-cancer antigen expressed by multiple different cell types within the tumor. While antagonizing PD-L1 is well known to relieve PD-1/PD-L1-mediated T cell suppression, here we have combined this approach with an immunotherapy strategy to target T cell cytotoxicity directly toward PD-L1-expressing cells. We developed a bi-specific T cell engager (BiTE) crosslinking PD-L1 and CD3ε and demonstrated targeted cytotoxicity using a clinically relevant patient-derived ascites model. This approach represents an immunological 'volte-face' whereby a tumor immunological defense mechanism can be instantly transformed into an Achilles' heel for targeted immunotherapy. METHODS: The PD-L1 targeting BiTE comprises an anti-PD-L1 single-chain variable fragment (scFv) or nanobody (NB) domain and an anti-CD3 scFv domain in a tandem repeat. The ability to activate T cell cytotoxicity toward PD-L1-expressing cells was established using human carcinoma cells and PD-L1-expressing human ('M2') macrophages in the presence of autologous T cells. Furthermore, we armed oncolytic herpes simplex virus-1 (oHSV-1) with PD-L1 BiTE and demonstrated successful delivery and targeted cytotoxicity in unpurified cultures of malignant ascites derived from different cancer patients. RESULTS: PD-L1 BiTE crosslinks PD-L1-positive cells and CD3ε on T cells in a 'pseudo-synapse' and triggers T cell activation and release of proinflammatory cytokines such as interferon-gamma (IFN-γ), interferon gamma-induced protein 10 (IP-10) and tumour necrosis factor-α (TNF-α). Activation of endogenous T cells within ascites samples led to significant lysis of tumor cells and M2-like macrophages (CD11b+CD64+ and CD206+/CD163+). The survival of CD3+ T cells (which can also express PD-L1) was unaffected. Intriguingly, ascites fluid that appeared particularly immunosuppressive led to higher expression of PD-L1 on tumor cells, resulting in improved BiTE-mediated T cell activation. CONCLUSIONS: The study reveals that PD-L1 BiTE is an effective immunotherapeutic approach to kill PD-L1-positive tumor cells and macrophages while leaving T cells unharmed. This approach activates endogenous T cells within malignant ascites, generates a proinflammatory response and eliminates cells promoting tumor progression. Using an oncolytic virus for local expression of PD-L1 BiTE also prevents 'on-target off-tumor' systemic toxicities and harnesses immunosuppressive protumor conditions to augment immunotherapy in immunologically 'cold' clinical cancers.

Original publication




Journal article


J Immunother Cancer

Publication Date





B7-H1 antigen, T-lymphocytes, immunotherapy, oncolytic virotherapy, tumor microenvironment