Treg-mediated acquired resistance to immune checkpoint inhibitors

Reem Saleh, Eyad Elkord*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

146 Citations (Scopus)


T Regulatory cells (Tregs) act as a double-edged sword by regulating immune homeostasis (protective role) and inhibiting immune responses in different disease settings (pathological role). They contribute to cancer development and progression by suppressing T effector cell (Teff) functions. Decreased ratios of intratumoral CD8+ T cells to Tregs have been associated with poor prognosis in most cancer types. Targeting immune checkpoints (ICs), such as cytotoxic T lymphocyte-associated antigen-4 (CTLA-4) and programmed cell death-1 (PD-1), by immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) in cancer patients has been beneficial in inducing anti-tumor immune responses and improving clinical outcomes. However, response rates remain relatively low, ranging from 15 to 40% depending on cancer type. Additionally, a significant proportion of patients who initially demonstrates a clinical response can acquire resistance overtime. This acquired resistance could occur due to the emergence of compensatory mechanisms within the tumor microenvironment (TME) to evade the anti-tumor effects of ICIs. In this review, we describe the immunosuppressive role of Tregs in the TME, the effects of currently approved ICIs on Treg phenotype and function, and the mechanisms of acquired resistance to ICIs mediated by Tregs within the TME, such as the over-expression of ICs, the up-regulation of immunosuppressive molecules, and apoptotic Treg-induced immunosuppression. We also describe potential therapeutic strategies to target Tregs in combination with ICIs aiming to overcome such resistance and improve clinical outcomes. Elucidating the Treg-mediated acquired resistance mechanisms should benefit the designing of well-targeted therapeutic strategies to overcome resistance and maximize the therapeutic efficacy in cancer patients.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)168-179
Number of pages12
JournalCancer Letters
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Immune checkpoint inhibitor
  • Immune checkpoints
  • Mechanisms of resistance
  • Tregs
  • Tumor microenvironment


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