Tumor infiltrating regulatory t cells in sporadic and colitis-associated colorectal cancer: The red little riding hood and the wolf

Massimo Claudio Fantini, Agnese Favale, Sara Onali, Federica Facciotti

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Regulatory T cells represent a class of specialized T lymphocytes that suppress unwanted immune responses and size the activation of the immune system whereby limiting collateral damages in tissues involved by inflammation. In cancer, the accumulation of Tregs is generally associated with poor prognosis. Many lines of evidence indicate that Tregs accumulation in the tumor microenvironment (TME) suppresses the immune response against tumor-associated antigens (TAA), thus promoting tumor progression in non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSLC), breast carcinoma and melanoma. In colorectal cancer (CRC) the effect of Tregs accumulation is debated. Some reports describe the association of high number of Tregs in CRC stroma with a better prognosis while others failed to find any association. These discordant results stem from the heterogeneity of the immune environment generated in CRC in which anticancer immune response may coexists with tumor promoting inflammation. Moreover, different subsets of Tregs have been identified that may exert different effects on cancer progression depending on tumor stage and their location within the tumor mass. Finally, Tregs phenotypic plasticity may be induced by cytokines released in the TME by dysplastic and other tumor-infiltrating cells thus affecting their functional role in the tumor. Here, we reviewed the recent literature about the role of Tregs in CRC and in colitis-associated colorectal cancer (CAC), where inflammation is the main driver of tumor initiation and progression. We tried to explain when and how Tregs can be considered to be the “good” or the “bad” in the colon carcinogenesis process on the basis of the available data concluding that the final effect of Tregs on sporadic CRC and CAC depends on their localization within the tumor, the subtype of Tregs involved and their phenotypic plasticity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number6744
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Molecular Sciences
Issue number18
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2 2020


  • Colitis-associated colorectal cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Inflammation
  • Regulatory T cells

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Catalysis
  • Molecular Biology
  • Spectroscopy
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry


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