Strategies for designing synthetic immune agonists

Immunology. 2016 Aug;148(4):315-25. doi: 10.1111/imm.12622. Epub 2016 Jul 11.


Enhancing the immune system is a validated strategy to combat infectious disease, cancer and allergy. Nevertheless, the development of immune adjuvants has been hampered by safety concerns. Agents that can stimulate the immune system often bear structural similarities with pathogen-associated molecular patterns found in bacteria or viruses and are recognized by pattern recognition receptors (PRRs). Activation of these PRRs results in the immediate release of inflammatory cytokines, up-regulation of co-stimulatory molecules, and recruitment of innate immune cells. The distribution and duration of these early inflammatory events are crucial in the development of antigen-specific adaptive immunity in the forms of antibody and/or T cells capable of searching for and destroying the infectious pathogens or cancer cells. However, systemic activation of these PRRs is often poorly tolerated. Hence, different strategies have been employed to modify or deliver immune agonists in an attempt to control the early innate receptor activation through temporal or spatial restriction. These approaches include physicochemical manipulation, covalent conjugation, formulation and conditional activation/deactivation. This review will describe recent examples of discovery and optimization of synthetic immune agonists towards clinical application.

Keywords: Toll-like receptor; adjuvants; drug discovery; immuno-oncology; vaccine.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adjuvants, Immunologic / chemistry
  • Adjuvants, Immunologic / therapeutic use*
  • Animals
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Drug Design*
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity / immunology
  • Hypersensitivity / therapy*
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Inflammation Mediators / chemistry
  • Inflammation Mediators / therapeutic use*
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Receptors, Pattern Recognition / agonists
  • Virus Diseases / immunology
  • Virus Diseases / therapy*


  • Adjuvants, Immunologic
  • Inflammation Mediators
  • Receptors, Pattern Recognition