Inhibition of RON kinase potentiates anti-CTLA-4 immunotherapy to shrink breast tumors and prevent metastatic outgrowth


The advent of immune checkpoint blockade as a new strategy for immunotherapy has changed the outlook for many aggressive cancers. Although complete tumor eradication is attainable in some cases, durable clinical responses are observed only in a small fraction of patients, underlining urgent need for improvement. We previously showed that RON, a receptor tyrosine kinase expressed in macrophages, suppresses antitumor immune responses, and facilitates progression and metastasis of breast cancer. Here, we investigated the molecular changes that occur downstream of RON activation in macrophages, and whether inhibition of RON can cooperate with checkpoint immunotherapy to eradicate tumors. Activation of RON by its ligand, MSP, altered the gene expression profile of macrophages drastically and upregulated surface levels of CD80 and PD-L1, ligands for T-cell checkpoint receptors CTLA-4 and PD-1. Genetic deletion or pharmacological inhibition of RON in combination with anti-CTLA-4, but not with anti-PD-1, resulted in improved clinical responses against orthotopically transplanted tumors compared to single-agent treatment groups, resulting in complete tumor eradication in 46% of the animals. Positive responses to therapy were associated with higher levels of T-cell activation markers and tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. Importantly, co-inhibition of RON and anti-CTLA-4 was also effective in clearing metastatic breast cancer cells in lungs, resulting in clinical responses in nearly 60% of the mice. These findings suggest that RON inhibition can be a novel approach to potentiate responses to checkpoint immunotherapy in breast cancer.

Oncoimmunology, 7(9):e1480286