CAR-mediated targeting of NK cells overcomes tumor immune escape caused by ICAM-1 downregulation

February, 02, 2024 | Select Oncology Journal Articles


The antitumor activity of natural killer (NK) cells can be enhanced by specific targeting with therapeutic antibodies that trigger antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC) or by genetic engineering to express chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). Despite antibody or CAR targeting, some tumors remain resistant towards NK cell attack. While the importance of ICAM-1/LFA-1 interaction for natural cytotoxicity of NK cells is known, its impact on ADCC induced by the ErbB2 (HER2)-specific antibody trastuzumab and ErbB2-CAR-mediated NK cell cytotoxicity against breast cancer cells has not been investigated.


Here we used NK-92 cells expressing high-affinity Fc receptor FcRIIIa in combination with trastuzumab or ErbB2-CAR engineered NK-92 cells (NK-92/5.28.z) as well as primary human NK cells combined with trastuzumab or modified with the ErbB2-CAR and tested cytotoxicity against cancer cells varying in ICAM-1 expression or alternatively blocked LFA-1 on NK cells. Furthermore, we specifically stimulated Fc receptor, CAR and/or LFA-1 to study their crosstalk at the immunological synapse and their contribution to degranulation and intracellular signaling in antibody-targeted or CAR-targeted NK cells.


Blockade of LFA-1 or absence of ICAM-1 significantly reduced cell killing and cytokine release during trastuzumab-mediated ADCC against ErbB2-positive breast cancer cells, but not so in CAR-targeted NK cells. Pretreatment with 5-aza-2′-deoxycytidine induced ICAM-1 upregulation and reversed NK cell resistance in ADCC. Trastuzumab alone did not sufficiently activate NK cells and required additional LFA-1 co-stimulation, while activation of the ErbB2-CAR in CAR-NK cells induced efficient degranulation independent of LFA-1. Total internal reflection fluorescence single molecule imaging revealed that CAR-NK cells formed an irregular immunological synapse with tumor cells that excluded ICAM-1, while trastuzumab formed typical peripheral supramolecular activation cluster (pSMAC) structures. Mechanistically, the absence of ICAM-1 did not affect cell–cell adhesion during ADCC, but rather resulted in decreased signaling via Pyk2 and ERK1/2, which was intrinsically provided by CAR-mediated targeting. Furthermore, while stimulation of the inhibitory NK cell checkpoint molecule NKG2A markedly reduced FcRIIIa/LFA-1-mediated degranulation, retargeting by CAR was only marginally affected.


Downregulation of ICAM-1 on breast cancer cells is a critical escape mechanism from trastuzumab-triggered ADCC. In contrast, CAR-NK cells are able to overcome cancer cell resistance caused by ICAM-1 reduction, highlighting the potential of CAR-NK cells in cancer immunotherapy.

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