Ibrutinib directly reduces CD8+T cell exhaustion independent of BTK

Ling Li, Manzhi Zhao, Caoimhe H. Kiernan, Melisa D. Castro Eiro, Marjan van Meurs, Inge Brouwers-Haspels, Merel E.P. Wilmsen, Dwin G.B. Grashof, Harmen J.G. van de Werken, Rudi W. Hendriks, Yvonne M. Mueller, Peter D. Katsikis*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Cytotoxic CD8+ T cell (CTL) exhaustion is a dysfunctional state of T cells triggered by persistent antigen stimulation, with the characteristics of increased inhibitory receptors, impaired cytokine production and a distinct transcriptional profile. Evidence from immune checkpoint blockade therapy supports that reversing T cell exhaustion is a promising strategy in cancer treatment. Ibrutinib, is a potent inhibitor of BTK, which has been approved for the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Previous studies have reported improved function of T cells in ibrutinib long-term treated patients but the mechanism remains unclear. We investigated whether ibrutinib directly acts on CD8+ T cells and reinvigorates exhausted CTLs. 


We used an established in vitro CTL exhaustion system to examine whether ibrutinib can directly ameliorate T cell exhaustion. Changes in inhibitory receptors, transcription factors, cytokine production and killing capacity of ibrutinib-treated exhausted CTLs were detected by flow cytometry. RNA-seq was performed to study transcriptional changes in these cells. Btk deficient mice were used to confirm that the effect of ibrutinib was independent of BTK expression. 


We found that ibrutinib reduced exhaustion-related features of CTLs in an in vitro CTL exhaustion system. These changes included decreased inhibitory receptor expression, enhanced cytokine production, and downregulation of the transcription factor TOX with upregulation of TCF1. RNA-seq further confirmed that ibrutinib directly reduced the exhaustion-related transcriptional profile of these cells. Importantly, using btk deficient mice we showed the effect of ibrutinib was independent of BTK expression, and therefore mediated by one of its other targets. 


Our study demonstrates that ibrutinib directly ameliorates CTL exhaustion, and provides evidence for its synergistic use with cancer immunotherapy.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1201415
JournalFrontiers in Immunology
Early online date12 Sept 2023
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2023 Li, Zhao, Kiernan, Castro Eiro, van Meurs, Brouwers-Haspels, Wilmsen, Grashof, van de Werken, Hendriks, Mueller and Katsikis.


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