Ectopic Tcf1 expression instills a stem-like program in exhausted CD8+ T cells to enhance viral and tumor immunity

Cell Mol Immunol. 2021 May;18(5):1262-1277. doi: 10.1038/s41423-020-0436-5. Epub 2020 Apr 27.


Exhausted CD8+ T (Tex) cells are dysfunctional due to persistent antigen exposure in chronic viral infection and tumor contexts. A stem cell-like Tex (Tex-stem) subset can self-renew and differentiate into terminally exhausted (Tex-term) cells. Here, we show that ectopic Tcf1 expression potently promoted the generation of Tex-stem cells in both a chronic viral infection and preclinical tumor models. Tcf1 overexpression diminished coinhibitory receptor expression and enhanced polycytokine-producing capacity while retaining a heightened responses to checkpoint blockade, leading to enhanced viral and tumor control. Mechanistically, ectopically expressed Tcf1 exploited existing and novel chromatin accessible sites as transcriptional enhancers or repressors and modulated the transcriptome by enforcing pre-existing expression patterns in Tex-stem cells, such as enhanced suppression of Blimp1 and Bim and acquisition of new downstream genes, including Mx1, Tox2, and Runx3. These findings reveal a pronounced impact of ectopic Tcf1 expression on Tex functional restoration and highlight the therapeutic potential of harnessing Tcf1-enforced transcriptional programs.

Keywords: Stem cell features; T cell exhaustion; Tcf1.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Cell Cycle
  • Cell Survival
  • Chromatin / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Hepatocyte Nuclear Factor 1-alpha / metabolism*
  • Immunity*
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / immunology
  • Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis / immunology
  • Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus / immunology*
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Transcriptome / genetics


  • Chromatin
  • Hepatocyte Nuclear Factor 1-alpha
  • Hnf1a protein, mouse