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T and natural killer (NK) lymphocytes are considered the main effector players in the immune response against tumors. Full activation of T and NK lymphocytes requires the coordinated participation of several surface receptors that meet their cognate ligands through structured transient cell-to-cell interactions known as immune synapses. In the case of T cells, the main route of stimulation is driven by antigens as recognized in the form of short polypeptides associated with major histocompatibility complex (MHC) antigen-presenting molecules. However, the functional outcome of T-cell stimulation towards clonal expansion and effector function acquisition is contingent on the contact of additional surface receptor-ligand pairs and on the actions of cytokines in the milieu. While some of those interactions are inhibitory, others are activating and are collectively termed co-stimulatory receptors. The best studied belong to either the immunoglobulin superfamily or the tumor necrosis factor-receptor (TNFR) family. Co-stimulatory receptors include surface moieties that are constitutively expressed on resting lymphocytes such as CD28 or CD27 and others whose expression is induced upon recent previous antigen priming, ie, CD137, GITR, OX40, and ICOS. Ligation of these glycoproteins with agonist antibodies actively conveys activating signals to the lymphocyte. Those signals, acting through a potentiation of the cellular immune response, give rise to anti-tumor effects in mouse models. Anti-CD137 antibodies are undergoing clinical trials with evidence of clinical activity and anti-OX40 monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) induce interesting immunomodulation effects in humans. Antibodies anti-CD27 and GITR have recently entered clinical trials. The inherent dangers of these immunomodulation strategies are the precipitation of excessive systemic inflammation or/and invigorating silent autoimmunity. Agonist antibodies, recombinant forms of the natural ligands, and polynucleotide-based aptamers constitute the pharmacologic tools to manipulate such receptors. Preclinical data suggest that the greatest potential of these agents is achieved in combined treatment strategies.

Original publication




Journal article


Seminars in oncology

Publication Date





640 - 655


Department of Immunobiology, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT. Electronic address:


Animals, Humans, Neoplasms, Antigens, Differentiation, Antigens, CD, Immunotherapy, Glucocorticoid-Induced TNFR-Related Protein, Inducible T-Cell Co-Stimulator Protein