Apatinib, a selective vascular endothelial growth factor receptor 2-tyrosine kinase inhibitor, has demonstrated activity against a wide range of solid tumors, including advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Preclinical and preliminary clinical results have confirmed the synergistic antitumor effects of apatinib in combination with anti-programmed death-1 (PD-1) blockade. However, the immunologic mechanism of this combination therapy remains unclear. Here, using a syngeneic HCC mouse model, we demonstrated that treatment with apatinib resulted in attenuation of tumor growth and increased tumor vessel normalization. Moreover, our results indicated that natural killer cells, but not CD4+ or CD8+ T cells mediated the therapeutic efficacy of apatinib in HCC mouse models. As expected, the combined administration of apatinib and anti-PD-1 antibody into tumor-bearing mice generated potent immune responses resulting in a remarkable reduction of tumor growth. Furthermore, increased interferon-γ and decreased tumor necrosis factor-α and interleukin-6 levels were observed, suggesting the potential benefits of combination therapy with PD-1 blockade and apatinib in HCC.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $41.58 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Villanueva A. Hepatocellular carcinoma. N Engl J Med. 2019;380:1450–62.
Sartorius K, Sartorius B, Aldous C, Govender PS, Madiba TE. Global and country underestimation of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in 2012 and its implications. Cancer Epidemiol. 2015;39:284–90.
El-Serag HB. Hepatocellular carcinoma. N Engl J Med. 2011;365:1118–27.
Park JW, Chen M, Colombo M, Roberts LR, Schwartz M, Chen PJ, et al. Global patterns of hepatocellular carcinoma management from diagnosis to death: the BRIDGE Study. Liver Int. 2015;35:2155–66.
Llovet JM, Ricci S, Mazzaferro V, Hilgard P, Gane E, Blanc JF, et al. Sorafenib in advanced hepatocellular carcinoma. N Engl J Med. 2008;359:378–90.
Kudo M, Finn RS, Qin S, Han KH, Ikeda K, Piscaglia F, et al. Lenvatinib versus sorafenib in first-line treatment of patients with unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma: a randomised phase 3 non-inferiority trial. Lancet. 2018;391:1163–73.
Cheng AL, Kang YK, Lin DY, Park JW, Kudo M, Qin S, et al. Sunitinib versus sorafenib in advanced hepatocellular cancer: results of a randomized phase III trial. J Clin Oncol. 2013;31:4067–75.
Llovet JM, Decaens T, Raoul JL, Boucher E, Kudo M, Chang C, et al. Brivanib in patients with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma who were intolerant to sorafenib or for whom sorafenib failed: results from the randomized phase III BRISK-PS study. J Clin Oncol. 2013;31:3509–16.
Zhu AX, Rosmorduc O, Evans TR, Ross PJ, Santoro A, Carrilho FJ, et al. SEARCH: a phase III, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of sorafenib plus erlotinib in patients with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma. J Clin Oncol. 2015;33:559–66.
Prieto J, Melero I, Sangro B. Immunological landscape and immunotherapy of hepatocellular carcinoma. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2015;12:681–700.
Nishida N, Kudo M. Role of immune checkpoint blockade in the treatment for human hepatocellular carcinoma. Dig Dis. 2017;35:618–22.
El-Khoueiry AB, Sangro B, Yau T, Crocenzi TS, Kudo M, Hsu C, et al. Nivolumab in patients with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (CheckMate 040): an open-label, non-comparative, phase 1/2 dose escalation and expansion trial. Lancet. 2017;389:2492–502.
Nishida N, Kudo M. Immune checkpoint blockade for the treatment of human hepatocellular carcinoma. Hepatol Res. 2018;48:622–34.
Roviello G, Ravelli A, Polom K, Petrioli R, Marano L, Marrelli D, et al. Apatinib: a novel receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitor for the treatment of gastric cancer. Cancer Lett. 2016;372:187–91.
Scott AJ, Messersmith WA, Jimeno A. Apatinib: a promising oral antiangiogenic agent in the treatment of multiple solid tumors. Drugs Today (Barc). 2015;51:223–9.
Xue JM, Astere M, Zhong MX, Lin H, Shen J, Zhu YX. Efficacy and safety of apatinib treatment for gastric cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma and non-small cell lung cancer: a meta-analysis. Onco Targets Ther. 2018;11:6119–28.
Liang Q, Kong L, Du Y, Zhu X, Tian J. Antitumorigenic and antiangiogenic efficacy of apatinib in liver cancer evaluated by multimodality molecular imaging. Exp Mol Med. 2019;51:76.
Xu J, Zhang Y, Jia R, Yue C, Chang L, Liu R, et al. Anti-PD-1 antibody SHR-1210 combined with apatinib for advanced hepatocellular carcinoma, gastric, or esophagogastric junction cancer: an open-label, dose escalation and expansion study. Clin Cancer Res. 2019;25:515–23.
Motz GT, Coukos G. The parallel lives of angiogenesis and immunosuppression: cancer and other tales. Nat Rev Immunol. 2011;11:702–11.
Hodi FS, Lawrence D, Lezcano C, Wu X, Zhou J, Sasada T, et al. Bevacizumab plus ipilimumab in patients with metastatic melanoma. Cancer Immunol Res. 2014;2:632–42.
Wallin JJ, Bendell JC, Funke R, Sznol M, Korski K, Jones S, et al. Atezolizumab in combination with bevacizumab enhances antigen-specific T-cell migration in metastatic renal cell carcinoma. Nat Commun. 2016;7:12624.
Liu K, Zhang X, Xu W, Chen J, Yu J, Gamble JR, et al. Targeting the vasculature in hepatocellular carcinoma treatment: starving versus normalizing blood supply. Clin Transl Gastroenterol. 2017;8:e98.
Apte RS, Chen DS, Ferrara N. VEGF in signaling and disease: beyond discovery and development. Cell. 2019;176:1248–64.
De Palma M, Biziato D, Petrova TV. Microenvironmental regulation of tumour angiogenesis. Nat Rev Cancer. 2017;17:457–74.
Landskron G, De la Fuente M, Thuwajit P, Thuwajit C, Hermoso MA. Chronic inflammation and cytokines in the tumor microenvironment. J Immunol Res. 2014;2014:149185.
Jain RK. Antiangiogenesis strategies revisited: from starving tumors to alleviating hypoxia. Cancer Cell. 2014;26:605–22.
Huang Y, Yuan J, Righi E, Kamoun WS, Ancukiewicz M, Nezivar J, et al. Vascular normalizing doses of antiangiogenic treatment reprogram the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment and enhance immunotherapy. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2012;109:17561–6.
Zhao S, Ren S, Jiang T, Zhu B, Li X, Zhao C, et al. Low-dose apatinib optimizes tumor microenvironment and potentiates antitumor effect of PD-1/PD-L1 blockade in lung cancer. Cancer Immunol Res. 2019;7:630–43.
Sun C, Sun H, Zhang C, Tian Z. NK cell receptor imbalance and NK cell dysfunction in HBV infection and hepatocellular carcinoma. Cell Mol Immunol. 2015;12:292–302.
Krasnova Y, Putz EM, Smyth MJ, Souza-Fonseca-Guimaraes F. Bench to bedside: NK cells and control of metastasis. Clin Immunol. 2017;177:50–9.
Schmittnaegel M, Rigamonti N, Kadioglu E, Cassara A, Wyser Rmili C, Kiialainen A, et al. Dual angiopoietin-2 and VEGFA inhibition elicits antitumor immunity that is enhanced by PD-1 checkpoint blockade. Sci Transl Med. 2017;9:eaak9670.
Liu XD, Hoang A, Zhou L, Kalra S, Yetil A, Sun M, et al. Resistance to antiangiogenic therapy is associated with an immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment in metastatic renal cell carcinoma. Cancer Immunol Res. 2015;3:1017–29.
Liang L, Wen Y, Hu R, Wang L, Xia Y, Hu C, et al. Safety and efficacy of PD-1 blockade-activated multiple antigen-specific cellular therapy alone or in combination with apatinib in patients with advanced solid tumors: a pooled analysis of two prospective trials. Cancer Immunol Immunother. 2019;68:1467–77.
Zhang QF, Yin WW, Xia Y, Yi YY, He QF, Wang X, et al. Liver-infiltrating CD11b(-)CD27(-) NK subsets account for NK-cell dysfunction in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma and are associated with tumor progression. Cell Mol Immunol. 2017;14:819–29.
Allen E, Jabouille A, Rivera LB, Lodewijckx I, Missiaen R, Steri V, et al. Combined antiangiogenic and anti-PD-L1 therapy stimulates tumor immunity through HEV formation. Sci Transl Med. 2017;9:eaak9679.
Hsu J, Hodgins JJ, Marathe M, Nicolai CJ, Bourgeois-Daigneault MC, Trevino TN, et al. Contribution of NK cells to immunotherapy mediated by PD-1/PD-L1 blockade. J Clin Investig. 2018;128:4654–68.
Gupta KK, Khan MA, Singh SK. Constitutive inflammatory cytokine storm: a major threat to human health. J Interferon Cytokine Res. 2020;40:19–23.
Mace TA, Shakya R, Pitarresi JR, Swanson B, McQuinn CW, Loftus S, et al. IL-6 and PD-L1 antibody blockade combination therapy reduces tumour progression in murine models of pancreatic cancer. Gut. 2018;67:320–32.
Bertrand F, Montfort A, Marcheteau E, Imbert C, Gilhodes J, Filleron T, et al. TNFalpha blockade overcomes resistance to anti-PD-1 in experimental melanoma. Nat Commun. 2017;8:2256.
This work was supported in part by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 81703786; to YY) and the Tianjin Science and Technology Committee (No. 18JCZDJC36700; to ZP).
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Yang, Y., Wang, C., Sun, H. et al. Apatinib prevents natural killer cell dysfunction to enhance the efficacy of anti-PD-1 immunotherapy in hepatocellular carcinoma. Cancer Gene Ther (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41417-020-0186-7