Adoptive transfer of antigen-specific T cells represents a major advance in cancer immunotherapy, with robust clinical outcomes in some patients1. Both the number of transferred T cells and their differentiation state are critical determinants of effective responses2,3. T cells can be expanded with T cell receptor (TCR)-mediated stimulation and interleukin-2, but this can lead to differentiation into effector T cells4,5 and lower therapeutic efficacy6, whereas maintenance of a more stem-cell-like state before adoptive transfer is beneficial7. Here we show that H9T, an engineered interleukin-2 partial agonist, promotes the expansion of CD8+ T cells without driving terminal differentiation. H9T led to altered STAT5 signalling and mediated distinctive downstream transcriptional, epigenetic and metabolic programs. In addition, H9T treatment sustained the expression of T cell transcription factor 1 (TCF-1) and promoted mitochondrial fitness, thereby facilitating the maintenance of a stem-cell-like state. Moreover, TCR-transgenic and chimeric antigen receptor-modified CD8+ T cells that were expanded with H9T showed robust anti-tumour activity in vivo in mouse models of melanoma and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Thus, engineering cytokine variants with distinctive properties is a promising strategy for creating new molecules with translational potential.
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