To elicit effective antitumor responses, CD8+ T cells need to infiltrate tumors and sustain their effector function within the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment (TME). Here, we evaluate the role of MNK activity in regulating CD8+ T cell infiltration and antitumor activity in pancreatic and thyroid tumors. We first show that human pancreatic and thyroid tumors with increased MNK activity are associated with decreased infiltration by CD8+ T cells. We then show that, while MNK inhibitors increase CD8+ T cells in these tumors, they induce a T cell exhaustion phenotype in the tumor microenvironment. Mechanistically, we show that the exhaustion phenotype is not caused by upregulation of programmed cell death ligand 1 (PD-L1) but is caused by tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs) becoming more immunosuppressive following MNK inhibitor treatment. Reversal of CD8+ T cell exhaustion by an anti–PD-1 antibody or TAM depletion synergizes with MNK inhibitors to control tumor growth and prolong animal survival. Importantly, we show in ex vivo human pancreatic tumor slice cultures that MNK inhibitors increase the expression of markers associated with immunosuppressive TAMs. Together, these findings demonstrate a role of MNKs modulating a protumoral phenotype in macrophages and identify combination regimens involving MNK inhibitors to enhance antitumor immune responses.
Thao N.D. Pham, Christina Spaulding, Mario A. Shields, Anastasia E. Metropulos, Dhavan N. Shah, Mahmoud G. Khalafalla, Daniel R. Principe, David J. Bentrem, Hidayatullah G. Munshi