Activin A promotes regulatory T cell-mediated immunosuppression in irradiated breast cancer.
Increased regulatory T cells (Tregs) after radiation therapy have been reported, but the mechanisms of their induction remain incompletely understood. TGFβ is known to foster Treg differentiation within tumors and is activated following radiation therapy. Thus, we hypothesized that TGFβ blockade would result in decreased Tregs within the irradiated tumor microenvironment (TME). We found increased Tregs in the tumors of mice treated with focal radiotherapy and TGFβ blockade. This increase was mediated by upregulation of another TGFβ family member, activin A. In vitro, activin A secretion was increased following irradiation of mouse and human breast cancer cells, and its expression was further enhanced upon TGFβ blockade. In vivo, dual blockade of activin A and TGFβ was required to decrease intratumoral Tregs in the context of radiation. This resulted in an increase in CD8+ T-cell priming and was associated with a reduced tumor recurrence rate. Combination of immune checkpoint inhibitors with the dual blockade of activin A and TGFβ led to the development of tumor-specific memory responses in irradiated breast cancer. Supporting the translational value of activin A targeting to reduce Treg-mediated immunosuppression, retrospective analysis of a public dataset of breast cancer patients revealed a positive correlation between activin A gene expression and Treg abundance. Overall, these results shed light on an immune escape mechanism driven by activin A, and suggest that dual targeting of activin A and TGFβ may be required to optimally unleash radiation-induced antitumor immunity against breast cancer.