Killing Mechanisms of Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T Cells

Int J Mol Sci. 2019 Mar 14;20(6):1283. doi: 10.3390/ijms20061283.


Effective adoptive T cell therapy (ACT) comprises the killing of cancer cells through the therapeutic use of transferred T cells. One of the main ACT approaches is chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy. CAR T cells mediate MHC-unrestricted tumor cell killing by enabling T cells to bind target cell surface antigens through a single-chain variable fragment (scFv) recognition domain. Upon engagement, CAR T cells form a non-classical immune synapse (IS), required for their effector function. These cells then mediate their anti-tumoral effects through the perforin and granzyme axis, the Fas and Fas ligand axis, as well as the release of cytokines to sensitize the tumor stroma. Their persistence in the host and functional outputs are tightly dependent on the receptor's individual components-scFv, spacer domain, and costimulatory domains-and how said component functions converge to augment CAR T cell performance. In this review, we bring forth the successes and limitations of CAR T cell therapy. We delve further into the current understanding of how CAR T cells are designed to function, survive, and ultimately mediate their anti-tumoral effects.

Keywords: adoptive T cell therapy; cancer immunotherapy; chimeric antigen receptor.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Fas Ligand Protein / metabolism
  • Granzymes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy, Adoptive / methods*
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Perforin / metabolism
  • Receptors, Chimeric Antigen / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / transplantation
  • fas Receptor / metabolism


  • Fas Ligand Protein
  • Receptors, Chimeric Antigen
  • fas Receptor
  • Perforin
  • Granzymes