Hypoxia-inducible factor-1 alpha expression is induced by IL-2 via the PI3K/mTOR pathway in hypoxic NK cells and supports effector functions in NKL cells and ex vivo expanded NK cells

Emily Cluff, Carina C. Magdaleno, Emyly Fernandez, Trenton House, Srividya Swaminathan, Archana Varadaraj, Narendiran Rajasekaran

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Natural killer (NK) cells are cytotoxic innate lymphocytes that are specialized to kill tumor cells. NK cells are responsive to the primary cytokine IL-2 in the tumor microenvironment (TME), to activate its effector functions against tumors. Despite their inherent ability to kill tumor cells, dysfunctional NK cells observed within advanced solid tumors are associated with poor patient survival. Hypoxia in the TME is a major contributor to immune evasion in solid tumors that could contribute to impaired NK cell function. HIF-1α is a nodal regulator of hypoxia in driving the adaptive cellular responses to changes in oxygen concentrations. Whether HIF-1α is expressed in hypoxic NK cells in the context of IL-2 and whether its expression regulates NK cell effector function are unclear. Here, we report that freshly isolated NK cells from human peripheral blood in hypoxia could not stabilize HIF-1α protein coincident with impaired anti-tumor cytotoxicity. However, ex vivo expansion of these cells restored HIF-1α levels in hypoxia to promote antitumor cytotoxic functions. Similarly, the human NK cell line NKL expressed HIF-1α upon IL-2 stimulation in hypoxia and exhibited improved anti-tumor cytotoxicity and IFN-γ secretion. We found that ex vivo expanded human NK cells and NKL cells required the concerted activation of PI3K/mTOR pathway initiated by IL-2 signaling in combination with hypoxia for HIF-1α stabilization. These findings highlight that HIF-1α stabilization in hypoxia maximizes NK cell effector function and raises the prospect of NK cells as ideal therapeutic candidates for solid tumors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalCancer Immunology, Immunotherapy
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2022

Keywords

  • HIF-1α
  • Hypoxia
  • IL-2
  • Natural killer cells

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology
  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research

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