Immunotherapy has significantly changed the treatment landscape for advanced non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) with the introduction of drugs targeting programmed cell death protein-1 (PD-1) and programmed cell death ligand-1 (PD-L1). In particular, the addition of the anti-PD-1 antibody pembrolizumab to platinum-pemetrexed chemotherapy resulted in a significantly improved overall survival in patients with non-squamous NSCLC, regardless of PD-L1 expression. In this preclinical study, we investigated whether chemotherapy can modulate PD-L1 expression in non-squamous NSCLC cell lines, thus potentially affecting immunotherapy efficacy. Among different chemotherapeutic agents tested, only pemetrexed increased PD-L1 levels by activating both mTOR/P70S6K and STAT3 pathways. Moreover, it also induced the secretion of cytokines, such as IFN-γ and IL-2, by activated peripheral blood mononuclear cells PBMCs that further stimulated the expression of PD-L1 on tumor cells, as demonstrated in a co-culture system. The anti-PD-1/PD-L1 therapy enhanced T cell-mediated cytotoxicity of NSCLC cells treated with pemetrexed and expressing high levels of PD-L1 in comparison with untreated cells. These data may explain the positive results obtained with pemetrexed-based chemotherapy combined with pembrolizumab in PD-L1-negative NSCLC and can support pemetrexed as one of the preferable chemotherapy partners for immunochemotherapy combination regimens.
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