Cytotoxic CD8 T cells (CTL) are a crucial component of the immune system notable for their ability to eliminate rapidly proliferating malignant cells. However, the T-cell intrinsic factors required for human CTLs to accomplish highly efficient antitumor cytotoxicity are not well defined. By evaluating human CD8 T cells from responders versus nonresponders to treatment with immune checkpoint inhibitors, we sought to identify key factors associated with effective CTL function. Single-cell RNA-sequencing analysis of peripheral CD8 T cells from patients treated with anti-PD-1 therapy showed that cells from nonresponders exhibited decreased expression of the cytolytic granule-associated molecule natural killer cell granule protein-7 (NKG7). Functional assays revealed that reduced NKG7 expression altered cytolytic granule number, trafficking, and calcium release, resulting in decreased CD8 T-cell-mediated killing of tumor cells. Transfection of T cells with NKG7 mRNA was sufficient to improve the tumor-cell killing ability of human T cells isolated from nonresponders and increase their response to anti-PD-1 or anti-PD-L1 therapy in vitro. NKG7 mRNA therapy also improved the antitumor activity of murine tumor antigen-specific CD8 T cells in an in vivo model of adoptive cell therapy. Finally, we showed that the transcription factor ETS1 played a role in regulating NKG7 expression. Together, our results identify NKG7 as a necessary component for the cytotoxic function of CD8 T cells and establish NKG7 as a T-cell-intrinsic therapeutic target for enhancing cancer immunotherapy.
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