Non-canonical proteins as candidate targets for cancer immunotherapy

22 Mar 2023
Non-canonical proteins as candidate targets for cancer immunotherapy

Recently published in Clinical Cancer Research*, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), a study led by Alena Gros, Principal Investigator of the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology’s Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy Group, tested more than 500 peptides (amino acid sequences) derived from non-canonical proteins as candidate tumour antigens that could be recognised by T-cells that activate an immune response in patients.

Cells in our body have proteins present on membranes known as HLA-I. These molecules bind peptides and present them on the cell surface. Some of these are recognised by lymphocytes or T-cells and trigger an immune response against cancer cells. One of the goals of research in immunotherapy is to seek out new tumour-specific antigens that can activate the immune response to fight cancer cells without targeting healthy tissue.

Employing immunopeptidomics, the investigators identified peptides presented on HLA-I in patient-derived tumour cell lines of melanoma, gynaecological, and head and neck cancers. They discovered more than 500 peptides derived from non-canonical proteins as candidate tumour antigens.  

To determine the role of non-canonical peptides in immune surveillance the researchers evaluated the presence of spontaneous pre-existing T-cell responses in cancer patients, targeting non-canonical tumour antigens as well as other conventional candidates. They observed that a high percentage of the conventional candidate antigens were recognised by the patients’ T-cells but found no T-cell receptor antigen recognition of the 507 non-canonical candidates.

“This finding is important. Up until now, research into non-canonical proteins using bioinformatic tools has suggested that we would be able to identify a new source of targetable tumour antigens to spontaneously activate an antitumour response in patients. Our present results have subsequently put this line of research on hold for the moment,” explains corresponding author Alena Gros.

“Despite these peptides did not trigger a T-cell response in cancer patients, we sought to establish if it was possible to select T-cells with receptors that specifically recognise these peptides in the laboratory, which would enable us to exploit these as immunotherapy in patients,” says Maria Lozano-Rabella, a Postdoctoral Fellow of Alena Gros’ Group and first author of this present study.

 “As one door closes, another opens. Our present results describe three T-cell receptors specific to three non-canonical HLA-I tumour ligands as novel antigens and potential therapeutic targets,” observes Gros.

Upon selecting and amplifying T-cell populations with these receptors in the laboratory, the investigators assessed the pattern of tumour specificity of the three candidate antigens to ensure that they recognise tumour cells but did not elicit an immune response against healthy cells. To do so, they co-cultured selected T-cell populations with patient-derived tumour cell lines and healthy cell lines.

“We observed that one of the candidate non-canonical peptides elicited a T-cell response to various tumour cell lines, but did not target normal cells. As such, we will continue to investigate its potential use as a therapeutic target in cancer patients,” adds Maria Lozano-Rabella.

Results demonstrate that there are regions of the genome, previously considered as non-coding, that in fact are. The investigators have evidenced there are non-canonical HLA-presented proteins shared by various types of tumours with a promising pattern of tumour specificity and identified specific T-cell receptors for these peptides.

“While our findings suggest a limited contribution of non-canonical proteins to cancer immunosurveillance, they represent a first step towards exploiting their potential in the development of immune-based strategies in oncology,” concludes Alena Gros.

This research was carried out as part of the VHIO-BBVA Foundation Comprehensive Program of Cancer Immunotherapy & Immunology (CAIMI), supported by the BBVA Foundation, and was also possible thanks to funding received from the Asociación Española Contra el Cáncer – AECC (Spanish Association against Cancer), la Fundació La Marató de TV3 (TV3 Marathon Foundation), Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación (Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation) and Instituto de Salud Carlos III - ISCIII (Carlos III Health Institute), CERCA - Research Centres of Catalonia Programme, Beatriu Pinós Program, the Agency for Management of University and Research Grants (AGUAR) and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation funding programme.

Source: Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology