PD-1/PD-L1 in Cancer: Pathophysiological, Diagnostic and Therapeutic Aspects

Int J Mol Sci. 2021 May 12;22(10):5123. doi: 10.3390/ijms22105123.


Immune evasion is a key strategy adopted by tumor cells to escape the immune system while promoting their survival and metastatic spreading. Indeed, several mechanisms have been developed by tumors to inhibit immune responses. PD-1 is a cell surface inhibitory receptor, which plays a major physiological role in the maintenance of peripheral tolerance. In pathological conditions, activation of the PD-1/PD-Ls signaling pathway may block immune cell activation, a mechanism exploited by tumor cells to evade the antitumor immune control. Targeting the PD-1/PD-L1 axis has represented a major breakthrough in cancer treatment. Indeed, the success of PD-1 blockade immunotherapies represents an unprecedented success in the treatment of different cancer types. To improve the therapeutic efficacy, a deeper understanding of the mechanisms regulating PD-1 expression and signaling in the tumor context is required. We provide an overview of the current knowledge of PD-1 expression on both tumor-infiltrating T and NK cells, summarizing the recent evidence on the stimuli regulating its expression. We also highlight perspectives and limitations of the role of PD-L1 expression as a predictive marker, discuss well-established and novel potential approaches to improve patient selection and clinical outcome and summarize current indications for anti-PD1/PD-L1 immunotherapy.

Keywords: NK cells; PD-1; PD-L1; cancer; glucocorticoids; immunotherapy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • B7-H1 Antigen / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • B7-H1 Antigen / immunology
  • B7-H1 Antigen / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy*
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / immunology
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / metabolism
  • Tumor Escape


  • B7-H1 Antigen
  • CD274 protein, human
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors
  • PDCD1 protein, human
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor