Background Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) often responds to PD-1 pathway blockade, regardless of tumor-viral status (~80% of cases driven by the Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV)). Prior studies have characterized tumor-specific T cell responses to MCPyV, which have typically been CD8, but little is known about the T cell response to UV-induced neoantigens.
Methods A patient in her mid-50s with virus-negative (VN) MCC developed large liver metastases after a brief initial response to chemotherapy. She received anti-PD-L1 (avelumab) and had a partial response within 4 weeks. Whole exome sequencing (WES) was performed to determine potential neoantigen peptides. Characterization of peripheral blood neoantigen T cell responses was evaluated via interferon-gamma (IFNγ) ELISpot, flow cytometry and single-cell RNA sequencing. Tumor-resident T cells were characterized by multiplexed immunohistochemistry.
Results WES identified 1027 tumor-specific somatic mutations, similar to the published average of 1121 for VN-MCCs. Peptide prediction with a binding cut-off of ≤100 nM resulted in 77 peptides that were synthesized for T cell assays. Although peptides were predicted based on class I HLAs, we identified circulating CD4 T cells targeting 5 of 77 neoantigens. In contrast, no neoantigen-specific CD8 T cell responses were detected. Neoantigen-specific CD4 T cells were undetectable in blood before anti-PD-L1 therapy but became readily detectible shortly after starting therapy. T cells produced robust IFNγ when stimulated by neoantigen (mutant) peptides but not by the normal (wild-type) peptides. Single cell RNAseq showed neoantigen-reactive T cells expressed the Th1-associated transcription factor (T-bet) and associated cytokines. These CD4 T cells did not significantly exhibit cytotoxicity or non-Th1 markers. Within the pretreatment tumor, resident CD4 T cells were also Th1-skewed and expressed T-bet.
Conclusions We identified and characterized tumor-specific Th1-skewed CD4 T cells targeting multiple neoantigens in a patient who experienced a profound and durable partial response to anti-PD-L1 therapy. To our knowledge, this is the first report of neoantigen-specific T cell responses in MCC. Although CD4 and CD8 T cells recognizing viral tumor antigens are often detectible in virus-positive MCC, only CD4 T cells recognizing neoantigens were detected in this patient. These findings suggest that CD4 T cells can play an important role in the response to anti-PD-(L)1 therapy.