The medical burden of hepatocellular carcinoma continues to increase in the United States as a consequence of the progressing age, duration of infection, and thus disease stage of hepatitis C-infected individuals. Hepatocellular carcinoma has been shown to express potentially immunogenic proteins such as alpha-fetoprotein and glypican-3. However, few if any T-cells can be detected in or around HCC pathologically, suggesting that the antigen recognition, expansion, homing and/or effector function of T-cells specific for these antigens have been suppressed in vivo. We hypothesize that tumor antigen-specific CD8+ T cells with intact capacity to proliferate and exert multiple effector functions exit in cirrhotic patients but in the natural progression to hepatocellular carcinoma develop profound functional impairment due to the suppressive tumor microenvironment. Our goal is to demonstrate that we can efficiently expand polyfunctional tumor antigen-specific CD8+ T-cells from peripheral blood lymphocytes from non-tumor-bearing cirrhotic patients with the intent of ultimately proving that priming and expanding these T-cells prior to the onset of HCC may retard or prevent the onset of hepatocellular carcinoma. We will approach this hypothesis first by examining the role of tumor ablation on tumor antigen-specific CD8+ T-cells from HCC patients. By studying the effects of inhibitory co-stimulation blockade on tumor-infiltrating T-cells and the longitudinal effects of intratumoral ablation on tumor-specific T-cells, we will precisely define te critical mechanisms involved in tumor-induced T-cell suppression in HCC. Secondly, we will attempt to demonstrate that highly functional cytolytic CD8+ effector T-cells targeting tumor antigens can be expanded from peripheral blood lymphocytes of cirrhotic patients at risk for future hepatocellular carcinoma but in whom cancer has yet to develop. Lastly, we will evaluate a cell-based vaccine platform to stimulate hepatoma-specific T-cells, as a platform toward developing a novel, preventive vaccine. The ultimate goal of these studies is to develop pre-clinical validation to support translation of cell-based vaccination into human clinical trials to prevent or delay the development of hepatocellular carcinoma in cirrhosis.
This proposal encompasses work designed to demonstrate that a cell-based tumor vaccine can induce potentially protective immunity in cirrhotic patients against tumor-associated antigens relevant to hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). We propose to define the mechanism for tumor-induced suppression of these T-cells in patients with HCC, to prove that highly functional effector tumor-specific T-cells can be expanded from cirrhotic patients, and to investigate a cell-based vaccine platform for immunizing cirrhotic patients against tumor-associated antigens. If ultimately successful, a preventive vaccine could have a major impact on survival and reduction of the need for liver transplantation in well-compensated cirrhotic patients.