Machine Learning for Cancer Immunotherapies Based on Epitope Recognition by T Cell Receptors

Front Genet. 2019 Nov 19:10:1141. doi: 10.3389/fgene.2019.01141. eCollection 2019.


In the last years, immunotherapies have shown tremendous success as treatments for multiple types of cancer. However, there are still many obstacles to overcome in order to increase response rates and identify effective therapies for every individual patient. Since there are many possibilities to boost a patient's immune response against a tumor and not all can be covered, this review is focused on T cell receptor-mediated therapies. CD8+ T cells can detect and destroy malignant cells by binding to peptides presented on cell surfaces by MHC (major histocompatibility complex) class I molecules. CD4+ T cells can also mediate powerful immune responses but their peptide recognition by MHC class II molecules is more complex, which is why the attention has been focused on CD8+ T cells. Therapies based on the power of T cells can, on the one hand, enhance T cell recognition by introducing TCRs that preferentially direct T cells to tumor sites (so called TCR-T therapy) or through vaccination to induce T cells in vivo. On the other hand, T cell activity can be improved by immune checkpoint inhibition or other means that help create a microenvironment favorable for cytotoxic T cell activity. The manifold ways in which the immune system and cancer interact with each other require not only the use of large omics datasets from gene, to transcript, to protein, and to peptide but also make the application of machine learning methods inevitable. Currently, discovering and selecting suitable TCRs is a very costly and work intensive in vitro process. To facilitate this process and to additionally allow for highly personalized therapies that can simultaneously target multiple patient-specific antigens, especially neoepitopes, breakthrough computational methods for predicting antigen presentation and TCR binding are urgently required. Particularly, potential cross-reactivity is a major consideration since off-target toxicity can pose a major threat to patient safety. The current speed at which not only datasets grow and are made available to the public, but also at which new machine learning methods evolve, is assuring that computational approaches will be able to help to solve problems that immunotherapies are still facing.

Keywords: MHC binding affinity prediction; T cell receptor; cancer immunotherapy; cross-reactivity; neoantigen; neoepitope.

Publication types

  • Review