Pembrolizumab Interferes with the Differentiation of Human FOXP3+-Induced T Regulatory Cells, but Not with FOXP3 Stability, through Activation of mTOR

J Immunol. 2020 Jan 1;204(1):199-211. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.1900575. Epub 2019 Dec 4.


Programmed cell death 1 (PD-1) is critical for T regulatory cells (Tregs) to maintain peripheral tolerance to self-antigens. In the tumor microenvironment, interaction between PD-1 and its ligands supports tumor immune evasion. Pembrolizumab blocks interactions of PD-1 with its ligands, enhancing antitumor and clinical responses. We and others have reported that pembrolizumab does not affect function or phenotype of thymic-derived Tregs; however, little is known about its effect on extrathymic differentiation of peripheral Tregs. In this study, we investigated the effect of pembrolizumab on in vitro-induced Tregs (iTregs). Our work showed that PD-1 blockade interferes with iTreg differentiation and has no potential effect on the stability of FOXP3 after differentiation. Additionally, we found that both nontreated and pembrolizumab-treated iTregs were suppressive. However, pembrolizumab-treated iTregs were relatively less suppressive in higher Treg ratios and failed to produce IL-10 compared with their nontreated counterparts. Different methods including transcriptomic analyses confirmed that the downregulation of FOXP3 was mediated by activating mTOR and STAT1 and inhibiting MAPK pathways, shifting the iTreg polarization in favor of Th1 and Th17 subsets. To confirm the role of mTOR activation, we found that rapamycin diminished the effect of pembrolizumab-mediated downregulation of FOXP3. Ingenuity pathway analysis revealed that pembrolizumab-treated iTregs showed upregulation of genes promoting DNA repair and immune cell trafficking, in addition to downregulation of genes supporting cellular assembly and organization. To our knowledge, this is the first study to show that pembrolizumab interferes with differentiation of human FOXP3+ iTregs and to disclose some of the molecular pathways involved.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized / pharmacology*
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Immunological / pharmacology*
  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects
  • Cell Differentiation / immunology
  • Demethylation / drug effects
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors / immunology
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Protein Stability / drug effects
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / drug effects*
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / immunology
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / immunology*
  • Up-Regulation / drug effects


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Immunological
  • FOXP3 protein, human
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors
  • pembrolizumab
  • MTOR protein, human
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases