Human tumors progress despite the presence of tumor associated antigen (TAA)-specific T cells. Many different molecular and cellular mechanisms contribute to the failure of T cells to eradicate the tumor. These include immune suppressive networks that impair ongoing T cell function and enable tumor escape. Recent studies have started to reveal the nature of effector T cells in the tumor microenvironment. In this article we discuss T cell anergy, exhaustion, senescence, and stemness, and review the phenotype of dysfunctional T cell subsets and the underlying molecular mechanisms in the tumor microenvironments. We suggest that targeting T cell dysfunctional mechanisms and introducing/promoting T cell stemness are important approaches to treat patients with cancer.
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