Introduction

Natural Killer (NK) cells are an emerging form of cancer immunotherapy currently being tested in clinical trials world-wide. NK cells are innate immune cells that can kill tumor cells via release of cytotoxic granules and via surface expression of the death receptor ligands tumor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) and Fas ligand. We and others have recently shown that the proteasome inhibitor bortezomib sensitizes tumor cells to NK cell TRAIL-mediated killing by upregulation of death receptor 5. In a recent phase I NK cell dose-escalation study conducted at the NIH (NCT00720785) we have attempted to exploit TRAIL sensitization by administering ex vivo-expanded autologous NK cells to patients with solid tumors or hematologic malignancies that have been pretreated with bortezomib. Ex vivo cultures used to expand clinical grade NK cells for this trial utilize irradiated EBV-LCL feeder cells and IL-2 containing media which upregulates surface expression of TRAIL, substantially augmenting NK cell killing of bortezomib-treated tumors in vitro. Here we characterize the impact of specific expansion conditions used to generate high numbers of NK cells for clinical use on NK cell TRAIL expression.

Methods

To generate clinical grade ex vivo-expanded NK cells, we first isolated NK cells from patient apheresis products by CD3+ depletion followed by CD56+ selection, and stimulated these enriched NK cells with irradiated EBV-LCL feeder cells at a ratio of 1:10 in X-VIVO 20 supplemented with 10% inactivated human AB serum and recombinant human IL-2 (500 IU/ml). The clinical trial evaluated 8 escalating NK cell dose levels (Figure 1). Cohorts 1-4 received a single infusion of ex vivo-expanded NK cells on day 0 in a dose-escalating fashion (3-6 pts per cohort) and cohorts 5-7 received 1 x 108 NK cells/kg on day 0 and a second escalating dose of NK cells infused on day +5. A "closed bag" Baxter PL732 culture system was used for cohorts 1-7 which was later changed to a GREX500-CS (Wilson Wolf) system in cohorts 7-8. Using flow cytometry, we monitored surface expression of TRAIL on the day NK cells were harvested and infused fresh into patients. We also assessed TRAIL expression on NK cells from a single patient cultured at 6 different cell densities (range: 2.03-16.95 x 106/cm2) using culture conditions mimicking the phase I trial.

Results

A total of 137 NK cell cultures were harvested and administered fresh to 32 patients. NK cells on the day of harvest expanded a median of 198-fold, 895-fold, and 3637-fold on culture days 14-16, 19-22, and 24-27, respectively. NK cells at harvest contained a median of 99.7% CD3/CD56+ NK cells, were 68.65% CD16+ and had a median of 88% viability. TRAIL was assessed by mean fluorescence intensity (MFI) with a median surface expression of of 1245 (range 132-4913) at the time of infusion (Figure 1). Expansions for cohort 8 generated 10-14 x109 (1 vessel) and 50-70 x109 NK cells (4-5 vessels) for fresh infusion, enough to support the target dose level of 1x108 (1st harvest) and 5x108 (2nd harvest) NK cells/kg. Remarkably, NK cells grown at higher cell density to reach the target cell numbers for cohort 8 exhibited substantially reduced TRAIL expression (median: 255, range 132-691). Subsequent experiments conducted on NK cells expanded in vitro for 14 days at different cell densities/concentrations showed TRAIL expression (MFI range: 319-1627) inversely correlated with both cell density and concentration (Figure 2). NK cells grown at the highest cell density (16.95 x 106/cm2) and concentration (4.23 x 106/mL) expressed the least amount of TRAIL (MFI 319), in contrast to those cultured at the lowest cell density (2.03 x 106/cm2) and concentration (0.51 x 106/mL), which demonstrated a TRAIL MFI of 1627.

Conclusions

Although ex vivo cultures using feeder cells make it possible to expand large numbers of NK cells for clinical use in humans, the higher concentrations and density of cells in these cultures reduce NK cell surface expression of TRAIL. In vitro, TRAIL expression appears to inversely correlate with cell density. These data highlight the need to avoid overly concentrating ex vivo expanded NK cells to maximize TRAIL surface expression as a method to potentiate the anticancer effects of adoptively infused NK cells.

Disclosures

No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes

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Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.