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Immunotherapy targeting 4-1BB: mechanistic rationale, clinical results, and future strategies

Cariad Chester, Miguel F. Sanmamed, Jun Wang and Ignacio Melero

Abstract

4-1BB (CD137, TNFRSF9) is an inducible costimulatory receptor expressed on activated T and natural killer (NK) cells. 4-1BB ligation on T cells triggers a signaling cascade that results in upregulation of antiapoptotic molecules, cytokine secretion, and enhanced effector function. In dysfunctional T cells that have a decreased cytotoxic capacity, 4-1BB ligation demonstrates a potent ability to restore effector functions. On NK cells, 4-1BB signaling can increase antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity. Agonistic monoclonal antibodies targeting 4-1BB have been developed to harness 4-1BB signaling for cancer immunotherapy. Preclinical results in a variety of induced and spontaneous tumor models suggest that targeting 4-1BB with agonist antibodies can lead to tumor clearance and durable anti-tumor immunity. Clinical trials of two agonist antibodies, urelumab and utomilumab, are ongoing. Despite initial signs of efficacy, clinical development of urelumab has been hampered by inflammatory liver toxicity at doses above 1 mg/kg. Utomilumab has a superior safety profile, but is a less potent 4-1BB agonist relative to urelumab. Both antibodies have demonstrated promising results in patients with lymphoma and are currently being tested in combination therapy trials with other immunomodulatory agents. In an effort to optimally leverage 4-1BB-mediated immune activation, the next generation of 4-1BB-targeting strategies attempts to decouple the observed antitumor efficacy from the on-target liver toxicity. Multiple therapeutics that attempt to restrict 4-1BB agonism to the tumor microenvironment and minimize systemic exposure have emerged. 4-1BB is a compelling target for cancer immunotherapy and future agents show great promise for achieving potent immune activation while avoiding limiting immune-related adverse events.

  • Submitted June 14, 2017.
  • Accepted September 6, 2017.