Recurrent disease, selection for chemo resistant clones and inhibition of immune effector functions are limitations of chemotherapeutic treatment of cancer including CLL. This is even more since graft-versus-leukemia effects and remissions after donor lymphocyte infusions have been correlated to long-term CLL free survival. Clonotype analysis of such cases suggested clonally expanded CD8+ T cells that recognize tumor associated antigens (TAAs) presented on HLA (human leukocyte antigen) as mediators of the observed effects, thus making CLL an attractive target for peptide vaccine based immunotherapy. For this goal we established the approach of direct isolation and identification of naturally processed and presented HLA ligands from tissues of interest by affinity chromatography and mass spectrometry. Comparative, semi-quantitative analysis of the HLA ligandomes of malignant and benign samples provided the rationale for selection of potential targets. 42 CLL patients (ages 48–85; median 70 years) of different HLA types and disease stages (Binet A, 24 patients; Binet B, 11 patients; Binet C, 7 patients) were enrolled in this study. Furthermore we collected blood samples from 50 healthy volunteers. HLA class I ligands were isolated from CLL cells as well as benign B cells from healthy donors and unsorted healthy PBMC using a standard affinity chromatography protocol implementing the pan-HLA class I specific antibody W6/32. Liquid chromatography coupled mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) based peptide analysis was performed on an LTQ Orbitrap hybrid mass spectrometer followed by annotation of fragment spectra using the MASCOT search algorithm against the human proteome comprised in the SwissProt database. Spectral counting based analysis provided semi-quantitative information regarding the abundance of HLA ligands and their source proteins in the respective ligandomes. In addition, HLA quantification experiments on the cell surface of CLL cells and autologous healthy B cells were performed using a flow cytometric indirect immunofluorescence assay. For this interim analysis we completely analyzed the HLA ligandomes of 7 CLL patients and 10 healthy controls. In total, we identified more than 15.000 different HLA ligands representing more than 7300 different proteins. This comprised more than 6,500 different ligands from CLL cells representing a total of 4,149 source proteins. Comparative analysis of representation in the HLA ligandomes of CLL cells, healthy B cells and healthy PBMC identified 1741 different source proteins as being exclusively expressed in CLL. Semi-quantitative evaluation revealed 138 of these proteins as being highly expressed on CLL (e.g. SET proto-oncogene, Pim-1 Oncogene, Mucin 1). Flow cytomerty based quantification of surface HLA expression revealed similar amounts of HLA class I (p=0.23, unpaired t-test) and II (p=0.33, unpaired t-test) molecules on CLL cells and autologous benign B lymphocytes, with a trend to higher HLA expression on CLL cells.
Taken together, the presented strategy enabled the identification of a vast array of both known and novel TAAs and their corresponding naturally processed and presented HLA ligands in CLL. It pinpointed highly overrepresented TAAs for further analysis and immunogenicity testing. Expansion of the dataset after analysis of all enrolled patients will provide an unprecedented in-depth characterization of the HLA ligandome of CLL for future immunotherapeutic approaches.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.