Alexander E Doan, Katherine P Mueller, Andy Y Chen, Geoffrey T Rouin, Yingshi Chen, Bence Daniel, John Lattin, Martina Markovska, Brett Mozarsky, Jose Arias-Umana, Robert Hapke, In-Young Jung, Alice Wang, Peng Xu, Dorota Klysz, Gabrielle Zuern, Malek Bashti, Patrick J Quinn, Zhuang Miao, Katalin Sandor, Wenxi Zhang, Gregory M Chen, Faith Ryu, Meghan Logun, Junior Hall, Kai Tan, Stephan A Grupp, Susan E McClory, Caleb A Lareau, Joseph A Fraietta, Elena Sotillo, Ansuman T Satpathy, Crystal L Mackall, Evan W Weber
Nature, 10 April 2024

A major limitation of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapies is the poor persistence of these cells in vivo1. The expression of memory-associated genes in CAR T cells is linked to their long-term persistence in patients and clinical efficacy2-6, suggesting that memory programs may underpin durable CAR T cell function. Here we show that the transcription factor FOXO1 is responsible for promoting memory and restraining exhaustion in human CAR T cells. Pharmacological inhibition or gene editing of endogenous FOXO1 diminished the expression of memory-associated genes, promoted an exhaustion-like phenotype and impaired the antitumour activity of CAR T cells. Overexpression of FOXO1 induced a gene-expression program consistent with T cell memory and increased chromatin accessibility at FOXO1-binding motifs. CAR T cells that overexpressed FOXO1 retained their function, memory potential and metabolic fitness in settings of chronic stimulation, and exhibited enhanced persistence and tumour control in vivo. By contrast, overexpression of TCF1 (encoded by TCF7) did not enforce canonical memory programs or enhance the potency of CAR T cells. Notably, FOXO1 activity correlated with positive clinical outcomes of patients treated with CAR T cells or tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes, underscoring the clinical relevance of FOXO1 in cancer immunotherapy. Our results show that overexpressing FOXO1 can increase the antitumour activity of human CAR T cells, and highlight memory reprogramming as a broadly applicable approach for optimizing therapeutic T cell states.