Immune-checkpoint inhibitors have shown modest efficacy against immunologically 'cold' tumours. Interleukin-12 (IL-12)-a cytokine that promotes the recruitment of immune cells into tumours as well as immune cell activation, also in cold tumours-can cause severe immune-related adverse events in patients. Here, by exploiting the preferential overexpression of proteases in tumours, we show that fusing a domain of the IL-12 receptor to IL-12 via a linker cleavable by tumour-associated proteases largely restricts the pro-inflammatory effects of IL-12 to tumour sites. In mouse models of subcutaneous adenocarcinoma and orthotopic melanoma, masked IL-12 delivered intravenously did not cause systemic IL-12 signalling and eliminated systemic immune-related adverse events, led to potent therapeutic effects via the remodelling of the immune-suppressive microenvironment, and rendered cold tumours responsive to immune-checkpoint inhibition. We also show that masked IL-12 is activated in tumour lysates from patients. Protease-sensitive masking of potent yet toxic cytokines may facilitate their clinical translation.
© 2022. The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.