Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Biology (Cell Biology, Microbiology, Molecular Biology)

Major Professor

Eduardo M. Sotomayor, M.D.

Co-Major Professor

Sheng Wei, M.D.

Committee Member

Shari Pilon-Thomas, Ph.D.

Committee Member

P.K. Epiling-Burnette, Pharm.D., Ph.D.

Committee Member

Lisa H. Butterfield, Ph.D.


HDACs, HDAC Inhibitors, Lymphocytes, Immune Checkpoint Blockade


Histone deacetylases (HDACs) are key mediators of gene expression and, thus, major regulators of cell function. As such, HDACs play a role in orchestrating tumor biology, and the use of small inhibitors targeting theses proteins is attractive for the field of cancer therapy. Indeed, several HDAC inhibitors have received FDA-approval for the treatment of malignancies, while a myriad of these compounds continue to be evaluated in clinical trials. Besides their direct impact on tumor growth, HDAC inhibitors have been shown to increase immunogenicity of cancer cells, facilitating generation of a productive immune response against tumors. Immunotherapeutic approaches take advantage of the intrinsic ability of the immune system to manifest an anti-tumor response. Mechanisms of immune escape are often developed by cancer cells, neutralizing activity of the immune system. For example, upregulation of the PD1 ligands PDL1 and PDL2 by tumor cells negatively regulates the anti-tumor functions of PD1-expressing infiltrating T-cells. Importantly, strategies targeting this inhibitory axis have shown outstanding clinical benefit for the treatment of solid and hematological malignancies.

The mechanisms by which HDAC inhibitors modulate tumor and immune cells biology were explored herein. Initially, treatment of melanoma cells with pan- and class I-selective HDAC inhibitors resulted in upregulation of PDL1 and PDL2 molecules. These effects were observed in mouse and human cell lines, as well as in tumor cells resected from metastatic melanoma patients. This upregulation was robust and sustained, lasting at least 96 hours in vitro, and validated in vivo using a B16F10 syngeneic mouse model. Enhanced expression of PDL1 mediated by HDAC inhibitors was found to result from enhanced histone acetylation at the PDL1 gene promoter region. Combination therapy of HDAC inhibition and PD1 blockade was explored in the tumor setting, leading to synergistic effects in terms of reducing melanoma progression and increasing survival of B16F10 melanoma-bearing mice. These data provide a clinical rationale for combination therapy of epigenetic modifiers (e.g. HDAC inhibitors) and PD1 blockade as means to augment cancer immunotherapy, improving patient outcomes.

As a second pillar of this research, the impacts of HDAC-selective inhibition were explored on immune cell biology, since the broad nature of pan-HDAC inhibitors was shown to be detrimental to T-cells in vitro and in vivo. Based on screening assay results, novel implications of treating melanoma patient T-cells ex vivo with the HDAC6-selective inhibitor ACY1215 were investigated. Treatment with this compound was unique among pan- and isotype-selective HDAC inhibitors in modulating T-cell cytokine production and showing minimal impact of T-cell viability. ACY1215 tempered Th2 cytokine production (i.e. IL-4, IL-6 and IL-10), and maintained Th1 effector cytokines (e.g. IFNγ and IL-2). Furthermore, ACY1215 increased expression of surface markers, including CD69 activation marker and ICOS co-stimulatory molecule. In addition, ACY1215 treatment enhanced accumulation of central memory T-cells during ex vivo expansion of tumor infiltrating T-cells harvested from resected tumors of metastatic melanoma patients. Importantly, ACY1215-mediated inhibition improved tumor-killing capacity of T-cells.

These results highlight an unexplored ability of selective HDAC inhibitor ACY1215 to augment T-cell expansion during protocols of adoptive cell therapy. While the discoveries presented here warrant further investigation of cellular and molecular mechanisms associated with ACY1215-treated T-cells, the clinic implications are clear and rapidly translatable.