Background The programmed cell death-1 (PD-1) receptor and its ligands PD-L1 and PD-L2 are immune checkpoints that suppress anti-cancer immunity. Typically, cancer cells express the PD-Ls that bind PD-1 on immune cells, inhibiting their activity. Recently, PD-1 expression has also been found in cancer cells. Here, we analysed expression and functions of PD-1 in thyroid cancer (TC). Methods PD-1 expression was evaluated by immunohistochemistry on human TC samples and by RT-PCR, western blot and FACS on TC cell lines. Proliferation and migration of TC cells in culture were assessed by BrdU incorporation and Boyden chamber assays. Biochemical studies were performed by western blot, immunoprecipitation, pull-down and phosphatase assays. TC cell tumorigenicity was assessed by xenotransplants in nude mice. Results Human TC specimens (47%), but not normal thyroids, displayed PD-1 expression in epithelial cells, which significantly correlated with tumour stage and lymph-node metastasis. PD-1 was also constitutively expressed on TC cell lines. PD-1 overexpression/stimulation promoted TC cell proliferation and migration. Accordingly, PD-1 genetic/pharmacologic inhibition caused the opposite effects. Mechanistically, PD-1 recruited the SHP2 phosphatase to the plasma membrane and potentiated its phosphatase activity. SHP2 enhanced Ras activation by dephosphorylating its inhibitory tyrosine 32, thus triggering the MAPK cascade. SHP2, BRAF and MEK were necessary for PD-1-mediated biologic functions. PD-1 inhibition decreased, while PD-1 enforced expression facilitated, TC cell xenograft growth in mice by affecting tumour cell proliferation. Conclusions PD-1 circuit blockade in TC, besides restoring anti-cancer immunity, could also directly impair TC cell growth by inhibiting the SHP2/Ras/MAPK signalling pathway.
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