Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) represents a major health problem, causing more than 700,000 deaths annually worldwide. Although HCC treatment has greatly improved over the last decades, most HCC patients diagnosed at advanced stages are ineligible for curative ablative therapies such as liver resection or transplantation. Until recently, the only FDA-approved therapies for such patients were sorafenib and regorafenib, used as first-line and second-line therapy, respectively. Unfortunately, these two closely related multikinase inhibitors provide limited survival benefits. In September 2017, nivolumab, a PD-1 (programmed cell death 1) immune checkpoint inhibitor, was granted accelerated approval by the FDA for HCC treatment in second line, after the promising results obtained in a phase II clinical trial (NCT01658878). Despite some HCC patients show unprecedented responses with nivolumab, not all patients respond, indicating the existence of mechanisms that drive resistance to anti-PD-1 therapy and highlighting the urgent need to identify biomarkers for optimal patient selection and strategies to overcome resistance. Studies in other tumor types demonstrate that different tumor- intrinsic oncogenic pathways, such as PI3K or WNT/?-catenin, promote immune escape and confer resistance to anti-PD-1 therapy but also inform patient stratification and strategies to overcome resistance. Our central hypothesis is that specific oncogenic signaling pathways activated in HCC amplify the mechanisms of immune evasion and thereby impair the response to anti-PD-1 therapy. By using a novel mouse model of HCC immune surveillance that we have recently created, we have recently demonstrated that CTNNB1 (?-catenin), PTEN, and KMT2C (MLL3), three genes frequently altered in human HCC, are involved in immune escape, demonstrating the feasibility of the project. Moreover, CTNNB1 activation confers resistance to anti-PD-1 blockade and could potentially serve as a biomarker for patient exclusion. Here, by combining this novel mouse model, human HCC samples, and transcriptional and immune profilings, we will establish the signaling pathways that promote immune escape in HCC, the underlying mechanisms of immune escape, and their effects on response to anti-PD-1 therapy.
Nivolumab, a novel PD-1 immune checkpoint inhibitor, has shown unprecedented results in a phase II clinical trial in hepatocellular carcinoma, a tumor type that is refractory to other targeted therapies, and has been granted accelerated FDA approval. Unfortunately, the determinants of sensitivity and resistance to this immunotherapy have not been established yet. Here, by combining the use a novel mouse model of HCC immune surveillance, human HCC samples, and transcriptional and immune profilings, we will establish the tumor intrinsic signaling pathways that promote immune escape in HCC, the underlying mechanisms of immune escape, and their effects on response to anti-PD-1 therapy, providing the rationale for improved patient selection and strategies to overcome resistance.