Helper T cell anergy: From biochemistry to cancer pathophysiology and therapeutics

Leonard J. Appleman, Dimitrios Tzachanis, Thomas Grader-Beck, Andre A.F.L. Van Puijenbroek, Vassiliki A. Boussiotis

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Tolerance in vivo and its in vitro counterpart, anergy, are defined as the state in which helper T lymphocytes are alive but incapable of producing IL-2 and expanding in response to optimal antigenic stimulation. Anergy is induced when the T cell receptor (TCR) is engaged by antigen in the absence of costimulation or IL-2. This leads to unique intracellular signaling events that stand in contrast to those triggered by coligation of the TCR and costimulatory receptors. Specifically, anergy is characterized by lack of activation of lck, ZAP 70, Ras, ERK, JNK, AP-1, and NF-AT. In contrast, anergizing stimuli appear to activate the protein tyrosine kinase fyn, increase intracellular calcium levels, and activate Rap1. Moreover, anergizing TCR signals result in increased intracellular concentrations of the second messenger cAMP. This second messenger upregulates the cyclin-dependent kinase (cdk) inhibitor p27kip1, sequestering cyclin D2-cdk4, and cyclin E/cdk2 complexes and preventing progression of T cells through the G1 restriction point of the cell cycle. In contrast, costimulation through CD28 prevents p27kip1 accumulation by decreasing the levels of intracellular cAMP and promotes p27kip1 down-regulation due to direct degradation of the protein via the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway. Subsequent autocrine action of IL-2 leads to further degradation of p27kip1 and entry into S phase. Understanding the biochemical and molecular basis of T cell anergy will allow the development of new assays to evaluate the immune status of patients in a variety of clinical settings in which tolerance has an important role, including cancer, autoimmune diseases, and organ transplantation. Precise understanding of these biochemical and molecular events is necessary in order to develop novel treatment strategies against cancer. One of the mechanisms by which tumors down-regulate the immune system is through the anergizing inactivation of helper T lymphocytes, resulting in the absence of T cell help to tumor-specific CTLs. Although T-cells specific for tumor associated antigens are detected in cancer patients they often are unresponsive. Reversal of the defects that block the cell cycle progression is mandatory for clonal expansion of tumor specific T cells during the administration of tumor vaccines. Reversal of the anergic state of tumor specific T cells is also critical for the sufficient expansion of such T cells ex vivo for adoptive immunotherapy. On the other hand, understanding the molecular mechanisms of anergy will greatly improve our ability to design novel clinical therapeutic approaches to induce antigen-specific tolerance and prevent graft rejection and graft-versus-host disease. Such treatment approaches will allow transplantation of bone marrow and solid organs between individuals with increasing HLA disparity and therefore expand the donor pool, enable reduction in the need for nonspecific immunosuppression, minimize the toxicity of chemotherapy, and reduce the risk of opportunistic infections.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)673-683
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Molecular Medicine
Issue number12
StatePublished - Feb 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Anergy
  • Costimulation, T cells
  • Tolerance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Drug Discovery
  • Genetics(clinical)

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