Tonic-signaling chimeric antigen receptors drive human regulatory T cell exhaustion

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2023 Apr 4;120(14):e2219086120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2219086120. Epub 2023 Mar 27.


Regulatory T cell (Treg) therapy is a promising approach to improve outcomes in transplantation and autoimmunity. In conventional T cell therapy, chronic stimulation can result in poor in vivo function, a phenomenon termed exhaustion. Whether or not Tregs are also susceptible to exhaustion, and if so, if this would limit their therapeutic effect, was unknown. To "benchmark" exhaustion in human Tregs, we used a method known to induce exhaustion in conventional T cells: expression of a tonic-signaling chimeric antigen receptor (TS-CAR). We found that TS-CAR-expressing Tregs rapidly acquired a phenotype that resembled exhaustion and had major changes in their transcriptome, metabolism, and epigenome. Similar to conventional T cells, TS-CAR Tregs upregulated expression of inhibitory receptors and transcription factors such as PD-1, TIM3, TOX and BLIMP1, and displayed a global increase in chromatin accessibility-enriched AP-1 family transcription factor binding sites. However, they also displayed Treg-specific changes such as high expression of 4-1BB, LAP, and GARP. DNA methylation analysis and comparison to a CD8+ T cell-based multipotency index showed that Tregs naturally exist in a relatively differentiated state, with further TS-CAR-induced changes. Functionally, TS-CAR Tregs remained stable and suppressive in vitro but were nonfunctional in vivo, as tested in a model of xenogeneic graft-versus-host disease. These data are the first comprehensive investigation of exhaustion in Tregs and reveal key similarities and differences with exhausted conventional T cells. The finding that human Tregs are susceptible to chronic stimulation-driven dysfunction has important implications for the design of CAR Treg adoptive immunotherapy strategies.

Keywords: chimeric antigen receptor; epigenetics; exhaustion; regulatory T cells; tolerance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Graft vs Host Disease*
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy, Adoptive / methods
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / genetics
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / metabolism
  • Receptors, Chimeric Antigen*
  • T-Cell Exhaustion
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory


  • Receptors, Chimeric Antigen
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell