Differential effects of corticosteroids and anti-TNF on tumor-specific immune responses: implications for the management of irAEs

Int J Cancer. 2019 Sep 1;145(5):1408-1413. doi: 10.1002/ijc.32080. Epub 2019 Jan 7.


Up to 60% of patients treated with cancer immunotherapy develop severe or life threatening immune-related adverse events (irAEs). Immunosuppression with high dose corticosteroids, or tumor necrosis factor (TNF) antagonists in refractory cases, is the mainstay of treatment for irAEs. It is currently unknown what impact corticosteroids and anti-TNF have on the activity of antitumor T cells. In our study, the influence of clinically relevant doses of dexamethasone (corresponding to an oral dose of 10-125 mg prednisolone) and infliximab (anti-TNF) on the activation and killing ability of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) was tested in vitro. Overall, dexamethasone at low or intermediate/high doses impaired the activation (-46 and -62%, respectively) and tumor-killing ability (-48 and -53%, respectively) of tumor-specific TILs. In contrast, a standard clinical dose of infliximab only had a minor effect on T cell activation (-20%) and tumor killing (-10%). A 72-hr resting period after withdrawal of dexamethasone was sufficient to rescue the in vitro activity of TILs, while a short withdrawal did not result in a full rescue. In conclusion, clinically relevant doses of infliximab only had a minor influence on the activity of tumor-specific TILs in vitro, whereas even low doses of corticosteroids markedly impaired the antitumor activity of TILs. However, the activity of TILs could be restored after withdrawal of steroids. These data indirectly support steroid-sparing strategies and early initiation of anti-TNF therapy for the treatment of irAEs in immuno-oncology.

Keywords: in vitro tumor-killing; anti-TNF; cancer immunotherapy; corticosteroids; immune-related adverse events.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal / adverse effects
  • Dexamethasone / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Immune Tolerance / drug effects
  • Infliximab / adverse effects*
  • Lymphocyte Activation / drug effects
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / drug effects*
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / immunology
  • Melanoma / immunology
  • Melanoma / pathology
  • T-Lymphocytes / drug effects*
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / antagonists & inhibitors*


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Dexamethasone
  • Infliximab