Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program


Molecular Medicine, Diabetes Center of Excellence

First Thesis Advisor

Michael Brehm


TLR, NK cells, Humanized mice, Cancer, Immuno-oncology, SGM3-BLT, IL-15


The kinetics of tumor growth and progression are governed by the interaction between tumor cells, the non-malignant stroma and both innate and adaptive immune cell lineages. Innate immunity has a critical role in the control of tumor cell growth and metastasis. The microenvironment of many tumors is populated with innate immune cells, including regulatory natural killer (NK) cells and dendritic cells (DCs), tumor associated macrophages, and myeloid derived suppressor cells, that suppress normal immune function. Much of our understanding of interactions between tumors and the innate immune system is based on experimental studies performed in mouse “syngenic” models. However, there is clear need for a mechanistic understanding of the human innate immune system within the tumor microenvironment.

The goal of my thesis is to characterize the interactions between human innate immune cells and tumors and to define specific pathways and cell lineages that are targets for immune modulation. A central focus of my thesis is the use of cutting-edge humanized mouse models based on the immunodeficient NOD-scid IL2Rgnull (NSG) mouse strain to study human immuno-oncology. In the first section of my thesis I describe studies that evaluate the influence of inflammatory stimuli on innate immune control of tumors. Agents that induce inflammation have been used since the 18th century for the treatment of cancer. The inflammation induced by agents such as toll-like receptor (TLR) agonists is thought to stimulate tumor-specific immunity in patients and augment control of tumor burden. While NSG mice lack murine adaptive immunity (T and B cells), these mice maintain a residual murine innate immune system that responds to TLR agonists. Here I describe a novel NSG mouse strain lacking TLR4 that fails to respond to lipopolysaccharide (LPS). NSG-Tlr4null mice support human immune system engraftment and enables the study of human specific responses to TLR4 agonists. My data demonstrate that specific stimulation of TLR4 activates human innate immune system and promotes regression of human patient derived xenograft (PDX) tumors. In the second section of my thesis I describe the development of an NSG mouse strain that constitutively expresses human Interleukin 15 (IL15) and supports the development of functional human NK cells. Using humanized NSG-IL15 transgenic mice (NSG-Tg(Hu-IL15), my data clearly demonstrate a critical role for human NK cells in limiting growth of a PDX melanoma. In the third section of my thesis I describe, the use of the bone marrow/liver/thymus (BLT) humanized mouse model to study the interactions between the human immune system and PDX melanoma and to evaluate the response of the melanoma to immunotherapy modalities.

My results collectively suggest that mice engrafted with human immune systems and bearing human tumors can be harnessed as translational models, which are critically needed as tools to study tumor immunotherapy. These humanized mouse models are an ideal translational tool to advance our understanding of human immuno-oncology and for development and testing of novel immune therapies for the treatment of malignancies.



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Available for download on Monday, August 16, 2021