Flow cytometry and targeted immune transcriptomics identify distinct profiles in patients with chronic myeloid leukemia receiving tyrosine kinase inhibitors with or without interferon-α

Raquel Alves, Stephanie E. B. McArdle, Jayakumar Vadakekolathu, Ana Cristina Gonçalves, Paulo Freitas-Tavares, Amélia Pereira, António M. Almeida, Ana Bela Sarmento-Ribeiro, Sergio Rutella

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19 Citations (Scopus)


BACKGROUND: Tumor cells have evolved complex strategies to escape immune surveillance, a process which involves NK cells and T lymphocytes, and various immunological factors. Indeed, tumor cells recruit immunosuppressive cells [including regulatory T-cells (Treg), myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSC)] and express factors such as PD-L1. Molecularly targeted therapies, such as imatinib, have off-target effects that may influence immune function. Imatinib has been shown to modulate multiple cell types involved in anti-cancer immune surveillance, with potentially detrimental or favorable outcomes. Imatinib and other tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) in chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) have dramatically changed disease course. Our study aimed to characterize the different populations of the immune system in patients with CML affected by their treatment. METHODS: Forty-one patients with CML [33 treated with TKIs and 8 with TKIs plus interferon (IFN)-α] and 20 controls were enrolled in the present study. Peripheral blood populations of the immune system [referred to as the overview of immune system (OVIS) panel, Treg cells and MDSCs] and PD-1 expression were evaluated by flow cytometry. The immunological profile was assessed using the mRNA Pan-Cancer Immune Profiling Panel and a NanoString nCounter FLEX platform. RESULTS: Patients receiving combination therapy (TKIs + IFN-α) had lower numbers of lymphocytes, particularly T cells [838/µL (95% CI 594-1182)] compared with healthy controls [1500/µL (95% CI 1207 - 1865), p = 0.017]. These patients also had a higher percentage of Treg (9.1%) and CD4+PD-1+ cells (1.65%) compared with controls [Treg (6.1%) and CD4+/PD-1+(0.8%); p ≤ 0.05]. Moreover, patients treated with TKIs had more Mo-MDSCs (12.7%) whereas those treated with TKIs + IFN-α had more Gr-MDSC (21.3%) compared to controls [Mo-MDSC (11.4%) and Gr-MDSC (8.48%); p ≤ 0.05]. CD56bright NK cells, a cell subset endowed with immune-regulatory properties, were increased in patients receiving TKIs plus IFN-α compared with those treated with TKIs alone. Interestingly, serum IL-21 was significantly lower in the TKIs plus IFN-α cohort. Within the group of patients treated with TKI monotherapy, we observed that individuals receiving 2nd generation TKIs had lower percentages of CD4+ Treg (3.63%) and Gr-MDSC (4.2%) compared to patients under imatinib treatment (CD4+ Treg 6.18% and Gr-MDSC 8.2%), but higher levels of PD-1-co-expressing CD4+ cells (1.92%). CONCLUSIONS: Our results suggest that TKIs in combination with IFN-α may promote an enhanced immune suppressive state.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2
Number of pages1
JournalJournal of Translational Medicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jan 2020


  • Chronic myeloid leukemia
  • Gene expression profiling
  • Immune monitoring
  • Immunotherapy
  • Interferon


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