Research ArticleImmunology

Blockade of surface-bound TGF-β on regulatory T cells abrogates suppression of effector T cell function in the tumor microenvironment

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Science Signaling  29 Aug 2017:
Vol. 10, Issue 494, eaak9702
DOI: 10.1126/scisignal.aak9702

Blocking immunosuppression

The antitumor effects of CD8+ T cells can be blocked in the tumor microenvironment, including through the suppressive function of regulatory T cells (Tregs). Standard in vitro systems fail to recapitulate the conditions that immune cells are exposed to in vivo. Budhu et al. used a three-dimensional, collagen-fibrin gel system to investigate the effects of CD8+ T cells on cocultured melanoma cells excised from mouse tumors. The antitumor activity of the CD8+ T cells was inhibited by the presence of tumor-derived Tregs, which depended on cell-cell contact or close proximity, required the cytokine TGF-β on the Treg cell surface, and resulted in the increased cell surface expression of the immune checkpoint receptor PD-1 on the CD8+ T cells. A blocking antibody against TGF-β prevented immunosuppression, suggesting a therapeutic strategy to inhibit Treg activity in tumors.


Regulatory T cells (Tregs) suppress antitumor immunity by inhibiting the killing of tumor cells by antigen-specific CD8+ T cells. To better understand the mechanisms involved, we used ex vivo three-dimensional collagen-fibrin gel cultures of dissociated B16 melanoma tumors. This system recapitulated the in vivo suppression of antimelanoma immunity, rendering the dissociated tumor cells resistant to killing by cocultured activated, antigen-specific T cells. Immunosuppression was not observed when tumors excised from Treg-depleted mice were cultured in this system. Experiments with neutralizing antibodies showed that blocking transforming growth factor–β (TGF-β) also prevented immunosuppression. Immunosuppression depended on cell-cell contact or cellular proximity because soluble factors from the collagen-fibrin gel cultures did not inhibit tumor cell killing by T cells. Moreover, intravital, two-photon microscopy showed that tumor-specific Pmel-1 effector T cells physically interacted with tumor-resident Tregs in mice. Tregs isolated from B16 tumors alone were sufficient to suppress CD8+ T cell–mediated killing, which depended on surface-bound TGF-β on the Tregs. Immunosuppression of CD8+ T cells correlated with a decrease in the abundance of the cytolytic protein granzyme B and an increase in the cell surface amount of the immune checkpoint receptor programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1). These findings suggest that contact between Tregs and antitumor T cells in the tumor microenvironment inhibits antimelanoma immunity in a TGF-β–dependent manner and highlight potential ways to inhibit intratumoral Tregs therapeutically.

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