Hallmarks of CD8+ T cell dysfunction are established within hours of tumor antigen encounter before cell division

Nat Immunol. 2023 Sep;24(9):1527-1539. doi: 10.1038/s41590-023-01578-y. Epub 2023 Aug 3.


Tumor-specific CD8+ T cells (TST) in patients with cancer are dysfunctional and unable to halt cancer progression. TST dysfunction, also known as exhaustion, is thought to be driven by chronic T cell antigen receptor (TCR) stimulation over days to weeks. However, we know little about the interplay between CD8+ T cell function, cell division and epigenetic remodeling within hours of activation. Here, we assessed early CD8+ T cell differentiation, cell division, chromatin accessibility and transcription in tumor-bearing mice and acutely infected mice. Surprisingly, despite robust activation and proliferation, TST had near complete effector function impairment even before undergoing cell division and had acquired hallmark chromatin accessibility features previously associated with later dysfunction/exhaustion. Moreover, continued tumor/antigen exposure drove progressive epigenetic remodeling, 'imprinting' the dysfunctional state. Our study reveals the rapid divergence of T cell fate choice before cell division in the context of tumors versus infection.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Neoplasm
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes*
  • Cell Division
  • Chromatin
  • Mice
  • Neoplasms*
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell


  • Antigens, Neoplasm
  • Chromatin
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell