Mucosa-associated invariant T cells in malignancies: a faithful friend or formidable foe?

Cancer Immunol Immunother. 2018 Dec;67(12):1885-1896. doi: 10.1007/s00262-018-2132-1. Epub 2018 Feb 22.


Mucosa-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells are a subset of innate-like T lymphocytes known for their ability to respond to MHC-related protein 1 (MR1)-restricted stimuli and select cytokine signals. They are abundant in humans and especially enriched in mucosal layers, common sites of neoplastic transformation. MAIT cells have been found within primary and metastatic tumors. However, whether they promote malignancy or contribute to anticancer immunity is unclear. On the one hand, MAIT cells produce IL-17A in certain locations and under certain circumstances, which could in turn facilitate neoangiogenesis, intratumoral accumulation of immunosuppressive cell populations, and cancer progression. On the other hand, they can express a potent arsenal of cytotoxic effector molecules, NKG2D and IFN-γ, all of which have established roles in cancer immune surveillance. In this review, we highlight MAIT cells' characteristics as they might pertain to cancer initiation, progression, or control. We discuss recent findings, including our own, that link MAIT cells to cancer, with a focus on colorectal carcinoma, as well as some of the outstanding questions in this active area of research. Finally, we provide a hypothetical picture in which MAIT cells constitute attractive targets in cancer immunotherapy.

Keywords: CITIM 2017; Cancer; IFN-γ; IL-17; MAIT cells; Tumor-infiltrating leukocytes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / genetics
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / immunology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / metabolism
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Surveillance
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Lymphocyte Activation
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / immunology
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / metabolism
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / pathology
  • Mucosal-Associated Invariant T Cells / immunology*
  • Mucosal-Associated Invariant T Cells / metabolism*
  • Mucosal-Associated Invariant T Cells / pathology
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / pathology


  • Biomarkers
  • Cytokines