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Soluble Immune Checkpoint Protein CD27 Is a Novel Prognostic Biomarker of Hepatocellular Carcinoma Development in Hepatitis C Virus–Sustained Virological Response Patients

      Factors affecting the probability of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) development even after sustained virological response (SVR) following anti–hepatitis C virus (HCV) therapy remain unelucidated. This study characterized the role of 16 soluble (s) immune checkpoint proteins in 168 HCV-SVR patients, with 47 developing HCC at the study end point. At baseline, high concentrations of 10 immune checkpoint proteins were found in the sera of the HCC group. At the study end point, levels of sCD27, sCD28, sCD40, and sCD86 in the HCC group, which were depleted following SVR, returned to higher levels than those of the non-HCC group. More important, patients with baseline levels of sCD27 ≥ 4104 pg/mL, sCD28 ≥ 1530 pg/mL, and sCD40 ≥ 688 pg/mL predicted a significantly greater HCC cumulative rate. Although sCD27 was elevated in patient sera, its membrane-bound form, mCD27, accumulated in the tumor and peritumor area, mainly localized in T cells. Interestingly, T-cell activation time dependently induced sCD27. Furthermore, CD70, the ligand of CD27, was robustly expressed in HCC area in which CD70 promoter methylation analysis indicated the hypomethylation compared with the nontumor pairs. Recombinant human CD27 treatment induced the proliferation of CD70-bearing HepG2 cells via the MEK–extracellular signal-regulated kinase pathway, but not NF-κB or p38 pathway. In conclusion, baseline sCD27, sCD28, and sCD40 levels could be used as HCC prognostic markers in HCV-SVR patients. sCD27 likely promotes HepG2 cell growth via the CD27-CD70 axis.
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