Membrane anchored IL-18 linked to constitutively active TLR4 and CD40 improves human T cell antitumor capacities for adoptive cell therapy

Dayana Blokon-Kogan, Maya Levi-Mann, Lior Malka-Levy, Orit Itzhaki, Michal J. Besser, Yuval Shiftan, Árpád Szöor, György Vereb, Gideon Gross, Hinrich Abken, Hadas Weinstein-Marom*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Adoptive transfer of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) or blood T cells genetically redirected by an antitumor TCR or CAR induces a strong antitumor response in a proportion of patients with cancer; however, the therapeutic efficacy is often limited by rapid decline in T cell functions. Coadministering supportive cytokines frequently provokes systemic side effects preventing their broad clinical application. We recently showed that cytokines can be anchored to the cell membrane in a functional fashion and that cytokine receptor signaling can synergize with TLR4 and CD40 signaling. Here, we aimed at augmenting T cell activation by simultaneous signaling through the cytokine receptor, toll-like receptor and TNF-type receptor using IL-18, TLR4 and CD40 as prototypes. Methods: Genes were expressed on electroporation of in vitro-transcribed mRNA in CD4 + and CD8 + T cells from healthy donors redirected against melanoma cells with an anti-melanotransferrin CAR and in TILs derived from melanoma patients. Functional assays included the activation of signaling pathways, expression of activation and differentiation markers, cytokine secretion and killing of melanoma target cells. Results: To provide IL-18 costimulation to T cells in-cis while avoiding systemic effects, we genetically anchored IL-18 to the T cell membrane, either alone (memIL-18) or fused with constitutively active (ca)TLR4 and caCD40 signaling domains arranged in tandem, creating a synthetic 'all-in-one' memIL-18-TLR4-CD40 receptor. MemIL-18-TLR4-CD40, but not memIL-18, triggered strong NF-κB activation in cells lacking the IL-18 receptor, attesting to functionality of the TLR-CD40 moiety. While the membrane-anchored cytokine was found to act mainly in-cis, some T cell activation in-trans was also observed. The electroporated T cells exhibited spontaneous T-bet upregulation and IFN-γand TNF-α secretion. Melanoma-induced activation of CAR-T cells and TILs as manifested by cytokine secretion and cytolytic activity was substantially augmented by both constructs, with memIL-18-TLR4-CD40 exerting stronger effects than memIL-18 alone. Conclusions: Linking membrane anchored IL-18 with caTLR4 and caCD40 signaling in one hybrid transmembrane protein provides simultaneous activation of three T cell costimulatory pathways through one genetically engineered membrane molecule, strongly amplifying T cell functions for adoptive T cell therapy of cancer.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere001544
JournalJournal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2 Sep 2022


  • Adjuvants, Immunologic
  • Cytokines
  • Immunotherapy, Adoptive
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating
  • Receptors, Chimeric Antigen


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