Electrolyte imbalance causes suppression of NK and T cell effector function in malignant ascites

Background: Malignant ascites commonly occurs in advanced or recurrent stages of epithelial ovarian cancer during peritoneal carcinomatosis and is correlated with poor prognosis. Due to its complex composition of cellular and acellular components malignant ascites creates a unique tumor microenvironment, which mediates immunosuppression and promotes progression of disease. However, the immunosuppressive mechanisms remain poorly understood.

Methods: In the present study, we explored the antitumor activity of healthy donor NK and T cells directed against ovarian cancer cells in presence of malignant ascites derived from patients with advanced or recurrent peritoneal carcinomatosis. A wide range of methods was used to study the effect of ascites on NK and T cells (FACS, ELISA, EliSpot, qPCR, Live-cell and confocal microscopy, Western blot and electrolyte flux assays). The ascites components were assessed using quantitative analysis (nephelometry, potentiometry and clinical chemistry) and separation methods (dialysis, ultracentrifugal filtration and lipid depletion).

Results: Ascites rapidly inhibited NK cell degranulation, tumor lysis, cytokine secretion and calcium signaling. Similarly, target independent NK and T cell activation was impaired in ascites environment. We identified imbalanced electrolytes in ascites as crucial factors causing extensive immunosuppression of NK and T cells. Specifically, high sodium, low chloride and low potassium content significantly suppressed NK-mediated cytotoxicity. Electrolyte imbalance led to changes in transcription and protein expression of electrolyte channels and impaired NK and T cell activation. Selected inhibitors of sodium electrolyte channels restored intracellular calcium flux, conjugation, degranulation and transcript expression of signaling molecules. The levels of ascites-mediated immunosuppression and sodium/chloride/potassium imbalance correlated with poor patient outcome and selected molecular alterations were confirmed in immune cells from ovarian cancer patients.

Conclusion: Our data suggest a novel electrolyte-based mechanism of immunosuppression in malignant ascites of patients with peritoneal carcinomatosis. We show for the first time that the immunosuppression of NK cytotoxicity in coculture assays is correlated to patient poor survival. Therapeutic application of sodium channel inhibitors may provide new means for restoring immune cell activity in ascites or similar electrolyte imbalanced environments.


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