TLR agonists: our best frenemy in cancer immunotherapy

J Leukoc Biol. 2013 Jun;93(6):847-63. doi: 10.1189/jlb.1012501. Epub 2013 Mar 8.


Various TLR agonists are currently under investigation in clinical trials for their ability to orchestrate antitumor immunity. The antitumor responses are largely attributed to their aptitude to stimulate APCs such as DCs which in turn, activate tumor-specific T cell responses. However, there is a potential for TLR signaling to occur on cells other than professional APCs that could negate antitumor responses or even worse, promote tumor growth. The impetus for this review is twofold. First, there is accumulating data demonstrating that the engagement of TLRs on different T cell subsets and different cancer types could promote tumor growth or conversely, contribute to antitumor responses. Second, the efficacy of TLR agonists as monotherapies to treat cancer patients has been limited. In this review, we discuss how TLR signaling within different T cell subsets and cancer cells can potentially impact the generation of antitumor responses. Based on evidence from preclinical models and clinical trials, we draw attention to several criteria that we believe must be considered when selecting TLR agonists for developing effective immunotherapeutic strategies against cancer.

Keywords: pathogen-associated molecular pattern; tumor immunity; tumor therapy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • Toll-Like Receptors / immunology*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Toll-Like Receptors