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BACKGROUND: Ablative therapy is a recommended treatment for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) not only for its effective eradication of tumors, but also for its induction of host immunity. However, the high 5-year recurrence rate after ablation underlines the poor understanding of the antitumor immunity response. Here, we investigated the effects of thermal ablation on antitumor immunity. METHODS: We analyzed the dynamics of tumor-associated antigen (TAA)-specific immune responses and changes in peripheral blood mononuclear cell phenotype in patients with HCC before and after tumor ablation. We used the IFN-γ ELISPOT assay and immunophenotyping by flow cytometry to evaluate the effects of ablation on host immunity. The correlation between the T cell response and disease outcome was explored to uncover the efficacy of the immune response in inhibiting HCC recurrence. RESULTS: Different TAA-specific T cell responses were identified among patients before and after ablation. One week after ablation, there was an improved immune state, with a switch from the dominance of an AFP-specific T cell response to that of a SMNMS-specific T cell response, which was correlated with better survival. Furthermore, an improvement in immune status was accompanied by a lower level of PD1+ and Tim3+ T cells in CD8+ T cells. Although this functional state was not durable, there was a higher degree of AFP-specific T cell responses at 4-weeks post-ablation. Furthermore, T cells presented a more exhausted phenotype at 4-weeks post-ablation than at the 1-week timepoint. CONCLUSIONS: Ablation elicits a transient antitumor immune response in patients with HCC by changing the profile of the T cell response and the expression of immune checkpoint molecules, which correlated with longer recurrence-free survival of patients with HCC.

Original publication




Journal article


Front Immunol

Publication Date





T-cell immune response, ablation, hepatocellular carcinoma, recurrence, tumor-associated antigen