Although small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is highly responsive to chemotherapies (e.g., cisplatin- etoposide doublet), virtually almost all responsive SCLC patients experience disease recurrence characterized by drug resistance. The mechanisms underlying cisplatin resistance remain elusive. Here we report that cell-intrinsic expression of PD1 and PD-L1, two immune checkpoints, is required for sustained expansion of SCLC cells under cisplatin selection. Indeed, PD1 and PD-L1 were expressed at a higher level in lung cancer cell lines, tumor tissues, and importantly, in SCLC cells resistant to cisplatin (H69R, H82R), when compared to respective controls. Genetic abrogation of PD1 and PD-L1 in H69R and H82R cells decreased their proliferation rate, and restored their sensitivity to cisplatin. Mechanistically, PD-L1 upregulation in H69R and H82R cells was attributed to the overexpression of DNA methyltransferase 1 (DNMT1) or receptor tyrosine kinase KIT, as knockdown of DNMT1 or KIT in H69R and H82R cells led to PD-L1 downregulation. Consequently, combined knockdown of PD-L1 with KIT or DNMT1 resulted in more pronounced inhibition of H69R and H82R cell growth. Thus, cell intrinsic PD1/PD-L1 signaling may be a predictor for poor efficacy of cisplatin treatment, and targeting the cellular PD1/PD-L1 axis may improve chemosensitization of aggressive SCLC.
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