Prognosis of leukemia relapse post allogeneic stem cell transplantation (alloSCT) is poor and effective new treatments are urgently needed. T cells are pivotal in eradicating leukemia through a graft versus leukemia (GVL) effect and leukemia relapse is considered a failure of GVL. T-cell exhaustion is a state of T-cell dysfunction mediated by inhibitory molecules including programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) and T-cell immunoglobulin domain and mucin domain 3 (TIM-3). To evaluate whether T-cell exhaustion and inhibitory pathways are involved in leukemia relapse post alloSCT, we performed phenotypic and functional studies on T cells from peripheral blood of acute myeloid leukemia patients receiving alloSCT. Here we report that PD-1hiTIM-3+ cells are strongly associated with leukemia relapse post transplantation. Consistent with exhaustion, PD-1hiTIM-3+ T cells are functionally deficient manifested by reduced production of interleukin 2 (IL-2), tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and interferon-γ (IFN-γ). In addition, these cells demonstrate a phenotype consistent with exhausted antigen-experienced T cells by losing TN and TEMRA subsets. Importantly, increase of PD-1hiTIM-3+ cells occurs before clinical diagnosis of leukemia relapse, suggesting their predictive value. Results of our study provide an early diagnostic approach and a therapeutic target for leukemia relapse post transplantation.
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