Experimental data indicate that FOXP3+ Tregs can markedly curtail host antitumor immune responses, but the properties of human intratumoral Tregs are still largely unknown, in part due to significant methodologic problems. We studied the phenotypic, functional, epigenetic, and transcriptional features of Tregs in 92 patients with non–small-cell lung cancer, comparing the features of Tregs within tumors versus corresponding blood, lung, and lymph node samples. Intratumoral Treg numbers and suppressive function were significantly increased compared with all other sites but did not display a distinctive phenotype by flow cytometry. However, by undertaking simultaneous evaluation of mRNA and protein expression at the single-cell level, we demonstrated that tumor Tregs have a phenotype characterized by upregulated expression of FOXP3 mRNA and protein as well as significantly increased expression of EOS, IRF4, SATB1, and GATA1 transcription factor mRNAs. Expression of these “Treg-locking” transcription factors was positively correlated with levels of FOXP3 mRNA, with highest correlations for EOS and SATB1. EOS had an additional, FOXP3 mRNA–independent, positive correlation with FOXP3 protein in tumor Tregs. Our study identifies distinctive features of intratumoral Tregs and suggests that targeting Treg-locking transcription factors, especially EOS, may be of clinical importance for antitumor Treg-based therapy.
Tatiana Akimova, Tianyi Zhang, Dmitri Negorev, Sunil Singhal, Jason Stadanlick, Abhishek Rao, Michael Annunziata, Matthew H. Levine, Ulf H. Beier, Joshua M. Diamond, Jason D. Christie, Steven M. Albelda, Evgeniy B. Eruslanov, Wayne W. Hancock