A Threshold Model for T-Cell Activation in the Era of Checkpoint Blockade Immunotherapy

Front Immunol. 2019 Mar 18;10:491. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2019.00491. eCollection 2019.


Continued discoveries of negative regulators of inflammatory signaling provide detailed molecular insights into peripheral tolerance and anti-tumor immunity. Accumulating evidence indicates that peripheral tolerance is maintained at multiple levels of immune responses by negative regulators of proinflammatory signaling, soluble anti-inflammatory factors, inhibitory surface receptors & ligands, and regulatory cell subsets. This review provides a global overview of these regulatory machineries that work in concert to maintain peripheral tolerance at cellular and host levels, focusing on the direct and indirect regulation of T cells. The recent success of checkpoint blockade immunotherapy (CBI) has initiated a dramatic shift in the paradigm of cancer treatment. Unprecedented responses to CBI have highlighted the central role of T cells in both anti-tumor immunity and peripheral tolerance and underscored the importance of T cell exhaustion in cancer. We discuss the therapeutic implications of modulating the negative regulators of T cell function for tumor immunotherapy with an emphasis on inhibitory surface receptors & ligands-central players in T cell exhaustion and targets of checkpoint blockade immunotherapies. We then introduce a Threshold Model for Immune Activation-the concept that these regulatory mechanisms contribute to defining a set threshold of immunogenic (proinflammatory) signaling required to elicit an anti-tumor or autoimmune response. We demonstrate the value of the Threshold Model in understanding clinical responses and immune related adverse events in the context of peripheral tolerance, tumor immunity, and the era of Checkpoint Blockade Immunotherapy.

Keywords: CTLA-4; PD-1; T cell exhaustion; antigen presentation attenuator; checkpoint blockade; immunotherapy; negative regulator; threshold model.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antigen-Presenting Cells / immunology
  • Autoimmunity
  • B7-H1 Antigen / immunology*
  • CTLA-4 Antigen / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immune Tolerance
  • Immunotherapy*
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Lymphocyte Activation*
  • Models, Immunological*
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Organ Specificity
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / immunology*
  • Receptors, Cytokine / immunology
  • Receptors, Cytokine / physiology
  • Signal Transduction
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Transcription, Genetic
  • Tumor Escape


  • B7-H1 Antigen
  • CD274 protein, human
  • CTLA-4 Antigen
  • CTLA4 protein, human
  • PDCD1 protein, human
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor
  • Receptors, Cytokine