Immune checkpoint inhibitors in cancer therapy: a focus on T-regulatory cells

Immunol Cell Biol. 2018 Jan;96(1):21-33. doi: 10.1111/imcb.1003. Epub 2017 Nov 17.


Regulatory T cells (Tregs) play essential roles in immune homeostasis; however, their role in tumor microenvironment (TME) is not completely evident. Several studies reported that infiltration of Tregs into various tumor tissues promotes tumor progression by limiting antitumor immunity and supporting tumor immune evasion. Furthermore, in TME, Tregs include heterogeneous subsets of cells expressing different immunosuppressive molecules favoring tumor progression. For an effective cancer therapy, it is critical to understand the Treg heterogeneity and biology in the TME. Recent studies have shown that immune checkpoint molecules promote cancer progression through various antitumor inhibitory mechanisms. Recent advances in cancer immunotherapy have shown the promising potentials of immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) in inducing antitumor immune responses and clinical benefits in patients with cancer at late stages. Most studies revealed the effect of ICIs on T effector cells, and little is known about their effect on Tregs. In this review, we highlight the effects of the ICIs, including anti-CTLA-4, anti-PD-1/PD-L1, anti-LAG-3, anti-TIM-3, and anti-TIGIT, on tumor-infiltrating and peripheral Tregs to elicit effector T-cell functions against tumors. Additionally, we discuss how ICIs may target Tregs for cancer immunotherapy.

Keywords: T‐regulatory cells; cancer; immune checkpoint inhibitors; tumor microenvironment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / therapeutic use*
  • Costimulatory and Inhibitory T-Cell Receptors / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Lymphocyte Activation
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / immunology*
  • Tumor Escape
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Costimulatory and Inhibitory T-Cell Receptors