Background/Aim: STAT3 is involved in the progression of several cancers, and has been proposed as target for therapy. Indeed, the multitargeted tyrosine kinase inhibitor drug regorafenib, which indirectly inhibits STAT3, can significantly enhance the effects of anti-programmed death receptor (PD)-1 therapy in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) models. Here, we studied the impact of a direct STAT3 inhibitor on the tumor microenvironment and PD-1 blockade efficacy in HCC models. Materials and Methods: Orthotopic mouse models of HCC (RIL-175 and HCA-1 grafts in syngeneic mice) were used to test the efficacy of the selective STAT3 inhibitor STX-0119 alone or combined with anti-PD-1 antibodies. We evaluated the effects of therapy on tumor vasculature and the immune microenvironment using immunofluorescence (IF), cell viability assay and quantitative real-time (qRT)-PCR in tumor tissues. Results: Combining anti-PD-1 antibodies with a STX-0119 failed to show a growth delay or survival benefit compared to each agent alone or control in any of the HCC models. Interestingly, evaluation of intratumoral CD8+ T cell infiltration by IF showed a significant increase after one-week treatment with STX-0119 (p=0.034). However, STX-0119 treatment simultaneously promoted increased immunosuppression in the tumor microenvironment by increasing the proportion of Tregs, tissue hypoxia and α-SMA activated cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) measured by IF. Consistent with these findings, we found increased immature tumor vessels by IF and VEGF, Tgf-β and Vash2 expression by qPCR. Conclusion: Pharmacologic STAT3 inhibition could significantly enhance CD8+ T cell infiltration in HCC but also significantly alter the immunosuppression and vascular abnormalization in the tumor microenvironment.
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