Regulation of PD-L1 Expression by NF-κB in Cancer. Frontiers in immunology

Fabrizio Antonangeli, Ambra Natalini, Marina Chiara Garassino, Antonio Sica, Angela Santoni, Francesca Di Rosa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Immune checkpoints are inhibitory receptor/ligand pairs regulating immunity that are exploited as key targets of anti-cancer therapy. Although the PD-1/PD-L1 pair is one of the most studied immune checkpoints, several aspects of its biology remain to be clarified. It has been established that PD-1 is an inhibitory receptor up-regulated by activated T, B, and NK lymphocytes and that its ligand PD-L1 mediates a negative feedback of lymphocyte activation, contributing to the restoration of the steady state condition after acute immune responses. This loop might become detrimental in the presence of either a chronic infection or a growing tumor. PD-L1 expression in tumors is currently used as a biomarker to orient therapeutic decisions; nevertheless, our knowledge about the regulation of PD-L1 expression is limited. The present review discusses how NF-κB, a master transcription factor of inflammation and immunity, is emerging as a key positive regulator of PD-L1 expression in cancer. NF-κB directly induces PD-L1 gene transcription by binding to its promoter, and it can also regulate PD-L1 post-transcriptionally through indirect pathways. These processes, which under conditions of cellular stress and acute inflammation drive tissue homeostasis and promote tissue healing, are largely dysregulated in tumors. Up-regulation of PD-L1 in cancer cells is controlled via NF-κB downstream of several signals, including oncogene- and stress-induced pathways, inflammatory cytokines, and chemotherapeutic drugs. Notably, a shared signaling pathway in epithelial cancers induces both PD-L1 expression and epithelial-mesenchymal transition, suggesting that PD-L1 is part of the tissue remodeling program. Furthermore, PD-L1 expression by tumor infiltrating myeloid cells can contribute to the immune suppressive features of the tumor environment. A better understanding of the interplay between NF-κB signaling and PD-L1 expression is highly relevant to cancer biology and therapy.
Original languageEnglish
JournalFront. Immunol.
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • epithelial-mesenchymal transition
  • inflammation
  • immune checkpoint inhibitors
  • non-small-cell-lung cancer
  • T cells
  • tissue homeostasis
  • tumor associated macrophages
  • tumor immunity


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