HKUMed develops a novel therapeutic approach against nasopharyngeal carcinoma by using exosomes derived from γδ-T cells synergised with radiotherapy

A research team at LKS Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong (HKUMed) discovered that exosomes derived from γδ-T cells (γδ-T-Exos) synergised with radiotherapy can control nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) by overcoming the radioresistance of NPC cancer stem cells (CSCs) and preserve their tumour-killing and T cell-promoting activities in the immunosuppressive NPC microenvironment. This study provides a proof of concept for a novel and potent strategy by combining γδ-T-Exos with radiotherapy in the control of NPC. The ground-breaking findings have been published in the leading academic journal, Journal for Immunotherapy of Cancer.


Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is one of the most aggressive Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-associated tumours, which are very prevalent in East Asia, including Hong Kong. Radiotherapy is the first-line treatment for NPC, but its therapeutic efficacy is poor in some patients due to radioresistance. Adoptive T cell-based immunotherapy has also shown promise to control NPC; however, its anti-tumour efficacy may be attenuated by an immunosuppressive tumour microenvironment. Exosomes are endosome-originated small extracellular vesicles that mediate intercellular communication. Compared with cell-based therapy, cell-free exosomes have advantages with higher safety, easier storage and lower costs. In a previous study, researchers have demonstrated that γδ-T-Exos could effectively control the progression of EBV-associated tumours. However, it remains unknown whether γδ-T-Exos have synergistic effect with radiotherapy and preserve their anti-tumour activities against NPC in an immunosuppressive tumour microenvironment.

Research findings

Herein, the research team found that γδ-T-Exos not only effectively interacted with NPC cells and induced tumour cell death in vitro, which was mainly mediated by Fas/Fas ligand (FasL) and death receptor 5 (DR5)/tumour necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) pathways, but also controlled NPC tumour growth and prolonged tumour-bearing mice survival in vivo. Furthermore, γδ-T-Exos selectively targeted the radioresistant CD44+/high CSCs and induced profound cell apoptosis. The combination of γδ-T-Exos with radiotherapy overcame the radioresistance of CD44+/high NPC cells and significantly improved its therapeutic efficacy against NPC in vitro and in vivo. In addition, γδ-T-Exos promoted T-cell migration into NPC tumours by upregulating CCR5 on T cells that were chemoattracted by CCR5 ligands in the NPC tumour microenvironment. Although NPC tumour cells secreted abundant tumour growth factor beta (TGF-β) to suppress T- cell responses, γδ-T-Exos preserved their direct anti-tumour activities and overcame the immunosuppressive NPC microenvironment to amplify T-cell anti-tumour immunity.

‘Our study first provides a strong pre-clinical proof of concept using a novel therapeutic strategy by combining γδ-T-Exos with radiotherapy to treat NPC. γδ-T-Exos can effectively interact with and kill both EBV positive and negative NPC cells. More importantly, γδ-T-Exos can eradicate radioresistant NPC CSCs and preserve their tumour-killing and T cell-promoting activities in the immunosuppressive NPC microenvironment. Therefore, combination of radiotherapy with γδ-T- Exos has great potential in the treatment of NPC, which will be highly beneficial to the clinical application of this approach,’ said Professor Tu Wenwei of the Department of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, School of Clinical Medicine, HKUMed, who led the research.

Exos effectively interact with NPC cells and induce tumor cell apoptosis

NPC43 cells were treated with CFSE-labeled Exos at different doses and cultured for different time as indicated. The ultracentrifuged pellets isolated from non-conditioned FBS–exosome-free medium were labeled with CFSE parallelly and used as Ctr. (A) Representative figures of CFSE intensity in NPC43 cells. The CFSE intensity (B), apoptosis (Annexin V+) (C) and necrosis (AnnexinV PI+) (D) of NPC43 cells were detected by flow cytometry. C666-1 cells were treated with Exos at different doses for 24 hours, then the cell apoptosis and necrosis were detected by flow cytometry. (E) Representative figures of AnnexinV and PI expression in C666-1 cells, apoptosis (F) and necrosis (G) in C666-1 cells are shown. (H) Apoptosis of NP69, NPC43 or C666-1 after treatment with Exos (Exos) and calculated as relative to those treated with PBS (Ctr). Quantitative data are mean±SEM of four biological replicates. (B–D) Statistical analysis was determined by two-way ANOVA. (F–H) Statistical analysis was performed using one-way ANOVA with Bonferroni correction. **P<0.01, ***P<0.001. ANOVA, analysis of variance; CFSE, carboxyfluorescein succinimidyl ester; Ctr, control; Exos, exosomes derived from γδ-T cells; MFI, median fluorescence intensity; NS, not significant.

Significance of the study

The findings of the study have significant implications in cancer immunotherapy. Firstly, γδ-T-Exos interacted with CD44+/high NPC CSCs in high efficacy. Therefore, γδ-T-Exos can supplement radiotherapy and enhance its therapeutic efficacy against NPC. Secondly, γδ-T-Exos has advantages over other exosome-based therapies in combination with ionising irradiation in NPC therapy (e.g. MSC-Exos) by preserving anti-tumour activities in the immunosuppressive NPC microenvironment and are easier in preparation. Thirdly, the results that γδ-T-Exos expanded pre-existing tumour-specific T cells in the immunosuppressive NPC microenvironment can greatly enhance the clinical feasibility of γδ-T-Exos. Therefore, it is important for the combination therapy to possess immunostimulatory effects to boost anti-tumour immunity in the immunosuppressive NPC microenvironment.


Wang X, Zhang Y, Mu X, Tu CR, Chung Y, Tsao SW, Chan GC, Leung WH, Lau YL, Liu Y, Tu W. (2022) Exosomes derived from γδ-T cells synergize with radiotherapy and preserve antitumor activities against nasopharyngeal carcinoma in immunosuppressive microenvironment. J Immunother Cancer 10(2):e003832. [article]

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