DNA methylation of key genomic regions in murine T cells during chronic viral infection and in tumor models establishes stable gene-silencing that leads to terminal exhaustion of CD8+ T cells, restricting response to PD-L1 blockade. Administration of demethylating agents prior to PD-L1 blockade in Tramp-C2 mice increased proliferation of CD8+ TIL and improved tumor control.
Immune-checkpoint-blockade (ICB)-mediated rejuvenation of exhausted T cells has emerged as a promising approach for treating various cancers and chronic infections. However, T cells that become fully exhausted during prolonged antigen exposure remain refractory to ICB-mediated rejuvenation. We report that blocking de novo DNA methylation in activated CD8 T cells allows them to retain their effector functions despite chronic stimulation during a persistent viral infection. Whole-genome bisulfite sequencing of antigen-specific murine CD8 T cells at the effector and exhaustion stages of an immune response identified progressively acquired heritable de novo methylation programs that restrict T cell expansion and clonal diversity during PD-1 blockade treatment. Moreover, these exhaustion-associated DNA-methylation programs were acquired in tumor-infiltrating PD-1hi CD8 T cells, and approaches to reverse these programs improved T cell responses and tumor control during ICB. These data establish de novo DNA-methylation programming as a regulator of T cell exhaustion and barrier of ICB-mediated T cell rejuvenation.