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CD137 (4-1BB) is a surface glycoprotein that belongs to the tumour necrosis factor receptor family (TNFRSF9). Its expression is induced on activation on a number of leucocyte types. Interestingly, for cancer immunotherapy, CD137 becomes expressed on primed T and natural killer (NK) cells, which on ligation provides powerful costimulatory signals. Perturbation of CD137 by CD137L or agonist monoclonal antibodies on activated CD8 T cells protects such antigen-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes from apoptosis, enhances effector functionalities and favours persistence and memory differentiation. As a consequence, agonist antibodies exert potent antitumour effects in mouse models and the CD137 signalling domain is critical in chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) of CAR T cells approved to be used in the clinic. New formats of CD137 agonist moieties are being clinically developed, seeking potent costimulation targeted to the tumour microenvironment to avoid liver inflammation side effects, that have thus far limited and delayed clinical development.

Original publication




Journal article


ESMO open

Publication Date





Program of Immunology and Immunotherapy, Center for Applied Medical Research (CIMA), Pamplona, Navarra, Spain. Electronic address:


Killer Cells, Natural, CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes, Animals, Neoplasms, Antibodies, Monoclonal, Immunotherapy, Tumor Microenvironment, Tumor Necrosis Factor Receptor Superfamily, Member 9