Harnessing Small Molecules to Facilitate Dendritic Cell Reprogramming
Conventional type 1 dendritic cells (cDC1s) are professional antigen-presenting cells with key roles in initiating and regulating potent and long-lasting anti-tumor immune responses. As such, they are critical for the response to checkpoint blockade and adoptive T-cell transfer but their rarity in peripheral blood has limited the clinical exploitation of cDC1s for cancer immunotherapy. We have recently identified PU.1, IRF8, and BATF3 transcription factors that convert mouse and human fibroblasts into functional cDC1s.
However, low reprogramming efficiency was a major roadblock for clinical translation. Here, we developed a microscopy-based high-content screening platform using the dendritic cell specific reporter system Clec9a-tdTomato, combined with flow cytometry analysis for cDC1 surface markers to identify and validate small molecules (SMs) that enhance reprogramming efficiency. We identified 358 SMs that increased Clec9a-tdTomato reporter activation, providing proof of principle that SMs can augment cDC1 reprogramming. We then validated these SMs by flow cytometry and showed that microscopy-based high-content screening results correlate with flow cytometry. We identified retinoid acid receptor (RAR) agonists, in particular RARβ and RARγ, promoting early reprogramming events as indicated by Clec9a-tdTomato reporter activation. Moreover, inhibition of WNK2 and B-RAF facilitated late events of cDC1 reprogramming as shown by increased CD45 and MHC-II marker expression. Also, WNK2 inhibition increased CD40 and XCR1 marker expression, hence enhancing cDC1 maturation and restricting a cDC1 cell fate.
These findings suggest that a stepwise activation of retinoic acid signaling followed by promoting MEK/MAPK pathway may result in an optimized cDC1 reprogramming protocol. Our work provides new insights into molecular mechanisms underlying cDC1 specification and reprogramming, paving the way to efficiently generate cDC1s for cancer immunotherapy.