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Escape from nonsense mediated decay associates with anti-tumor immunogenicity

By Kevin Litchfield, James Reading, Emilia Lim, Hang Xu, Po Liu, Maise AL-Bakir, Sophia Wong, Andrew Rowan, Sam Funt, Taha Merghoub, Martin Lauss, Inge Marie Svane, Göran Jönsson, Javier Herrero, James Larkin, Sergio A. Quezada, Matthew D. Hellmann, Samra Turajlic, Charles Swanton

Posted 07 Nov 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/823716 (published DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17526-5)

Frameshift insertion/deletions (fs-indels) are an infrequent but potentially highly immunogenic mutation subtype. Although fs-indel transcripts are susceptible to degradation through the non-sense mediated decay (NMD) pathway, we hypothesise that some fs-indels escape degradation and lead to an increased abundance of tumor specific neoantigens, that are highly distinct from self. We analysed matched DNA and RNA sequencing data from TCGA, and five separate melanoma cohorts treated with immunotherapy. Using allele-specific expression analysis we show that expressed fs-indels were enriched in genomic positions predicted to escape NMD, and associated with higher protein expression, consistent with degradation escape (“NMD-escape”). Across four independent cohorts, fs-indel NMD-escape mutations were found to be significantly associated with clinical benefit to checkpoint inhibitor (CPI) therapy (Pmeta=0.0039), a stronger association than either nsSNV (Pmeta=0.073) or fs-indel (Pmeta=0.064) count. NMD-escape mutations were additionally shown to have independent predictive power in the “low-TMB” setting, and may serve as a biomarker to rescue patients judged ineligible for CPI based on overall TMB, but still with a high chance of response (low-TMB cohort: NMD-escape-positive % clinical benefit=53%, NMD-escape-negative % clinical benefit=16%, P=0.0098). Furthermore, in an adoptive cell therapy (ACT) treated cohort, NMD-escape mutation count was the most significant biomarker associated with clinical benefit (P=0.021). Analysis of functional T-cell reactivity screens from recent personalized vaccine and CPI studies shows direct evidence of fs-indel derived neoantigens eliciting patient anti-tumor immune response (n=15). We additionally observe a subset of fs-indel mutations, with highly elongated neo open reading frames, which are found to be significantly enriched for immunogenic reactivity in these patient studies (P=0.0032). Finally, consistent with the potency of NMD-escape derived neo-antigens and ongoing immune-editing, NMD-escape fs-indels appear to be under negative selective pressure in untreated TCGA cases. Given the strongly immunogenic potential, and relatively rare nature of NMD-escape fs-indels, these alterations may be attractive candidates in immunotherapy biomarker optimisation and neoantigen ACT or vaccine strategies.

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