Acute Myeloid Leukemia Causes T Cell Exhaustion and Depletion in a Humanized Graft-versus-Leukemia Model.

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J Immunol. 2023;211(9):1426-37.








This work was supported by the Penn State Cancer Institute Funds, the Penn State University Enhancing Health Initiative, an American Cancer Society Research Scholar Grant (RSG-22-140-01-IBCD), Kiesendahl Endowment funding, and a philanthropic donation from Alan and Li Hao Colberg.


Allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (alloSCT) is, in many clinical settings, the only curative treatment for acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The clinical benefit of alloSCT greatly relies on the graft-versus-leukemia (GVL) effect. However, AML relapse remains the top cause of posttransplant death; this highlights the urgent need to enhance GVL. Studies of human GVL have been hindered by the lack of optimal clinically relevant models. In this article, we report, the successful establishment of a novel (to our knowledge) humanized GVL model system by transplanting clinically paired donor PBMCs and patient AML into MHC class I/II knockout NSG mice. We observed significantly reduced leukemia growth in humanized mice compared with mice that received AML alone, demonstrating a functional GVL effect. Using this model system, we studied human GVL responses against human AML cells in vivo and discovered that AML induced T cell depletion, likely because of increased T cell apoptosis. In addition, AML caused T cell exhaustion manifested by upregulation of inhibitory receptors, increased expression of exhaustion-related transcription factors, and decreased T cell function. Importantly, combined blockade of human T cell-inhibitory pathways effectively reduced leukemia burden and reinvigorated CD8 T cell function in this model system. These data, generated in a highly clinically relevant humanized GVL model, not only demonstrate AML-induced inhibition of alloreactive T cells but also identify promising therapeutic strategies targeting T cell depletion and exhaustion for overcoming GVL failure and treating AML relapse after alloSCT.