Immune checkpoint ligand reverse signaling: Looking back to go forward in cancer therapy

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The so-called immune checkpoints are pathways that regulate the timing and intensity of the immune response to avoid an excessive reaction and to protect the host from autoimmunity. Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) are designed to target the negative regulatory pathways of T cells, and they have been shown to restore anti-tumor immune functions and achieve considerable clinical results. Indeed, several clinical trials have reported durable clinical response in different tumor types, such as melanoma, renal cell carcinoma (RCC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Nonetheless, after the initial enthusiasm, it is now evident that the majority of patients do not benefit from ICIs, due to innate or acquired tumor resistance. It is therefore mandatory to find ways to identify those patients who will respond and to find ways to induce response in those who at present do not benefit from ICIs. In this regard, the expression of programmed death ligand 1 (PD-L1) on neoplastic cells was the first, and most obvious, biomarker exploited to predict the activity of anti-programmed death 1 (PD-1) and/or anti-PD-L1 antibodies. As expected, a correlation was confirmed between the levels of PD-L1 and the efficacy of anti-PD-1 therapy in melanoma, NSCLC and RCC. However, further results from clinical trials showed that some patients display a clinical response regardless of tumor cell PD-L1 expression levels, while others do not benefit from ICI treatment despite the expression of PD-L1 on neoplastic elements. These findings strongly support the notion that other factors may be relevant for the efficacy of ICI-based treatment regimens. Furthermore, although the current dogma indicates that the PD-1/PD-L1 axis exerts its regulatory effects via the signal transduced in PD-1-expressing T cells, recent evidence suggests that a reverse signaling may also exist downstream of PD-L1 in both tumor and immune cells. The reverse signaling of PD-L1, but also of other immune checkpoints, might contribute to the pro-tumoral/immune suppressive environment associated with tumor development and progression. Clarifying this aspect could facilitate the prediction of patients’ clinical outcomes, which are so far unpredictable and result in response, resistance or even hyper-progressive disease in some cases.

Original languageEnglish
Article number624
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2019


  • Immune checkpoint
  • Immunotherapy
  • PD-1/PD-L1
  • Reverse signaling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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