How Do T Cells Cross the Bloodstream? Key Role for Single Receptor Identified

Findings by Roswell Park-led team highlight central role of CXCR3, suggest options for improving immunotherapies
Friday, July 10, 2015

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Some of the most exciting recent advances in cancer treatment have involved adoptive T-cell therapy, in which a patient’s immune cells are retrained to recognize and attack tumor cells. New findings reported by Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers in the journal Nature Communications help explain why these approaches have been so effective, revealing a critical role for a particular signaling protein and opening up several possible strategies for improving these emerging cancer therapies.

Visualizing blood vessels in real time, the researchers, led by Sharon Evans, PhD, observed that the chemokine receptor CXCR3 must be present on the T cells, or T lymphocytes, in order for these important cancer-fighting cells to be delivered to tumors. The scientists, who included collaborators from the University of Rochester Medical Center/Wilmot Cancer Center, the University of Chicago and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, were surprised to find that CXCR3 molecules serve the same function in both human melanoma cells and in preclinical models of melanoma, and that other, similar chemokine receptors do not possess this ability.

These results suggest that the mechanisms governing T-cell homing are more complex than previously realized, and that T cells may respond differently to trafficking cues depending on the disease setting. While T-cell trafficking across blood vessels has been acknowledged as a key step in immune-driven tumor killing, little was previously known about the directional signals that these white blood cells must receive in order to move out of the bloodstream and pursue cancer cells.

“Our study is the first to define the molecular cues necessary for delivery of killer T lymphocytes to tumor beds during cancer immunotherapy, and the first to observe that this receptor is a necessary contributor to adoptive cell transfer immunotherapy,” says Dr. Evans, the paper’s senior author, who is a Professor of Oncology in the Department of Immunology at Roswell Park. “While this research focused on melanoma, we believe the findings will be relevant for many other types of cancer, including colorectal, breast and pancreatic cancer.”

Personalized profiling of a patient’s tumor without functional analysis provides only a partial picture of how effective T-cell therapeutics are likely to be, according to the researchers. “The unique role for CXCR3 and its ligands that we uncovered through this work could not have been predicted from genomic or proteomic profiling of the tumor microenvironment,” notes first author Maryann Mikucki, MD, PhD, a trainee in the Department of Immunology at Roswell Park.

Following on these findings, Roswell Park researchers are looking into the mechanisms that tumors use to block recruitment of killer T cells and at ways to address those impediments. Further study will also be needed to better understand why T cells exhibit a preference for CXCR3 over other chemokine receptors during T-cell homing to tumor sites and to exploit this CXCR3 requirement in the clinical setting toward the goal of improving outcomes in cancer patients.

This work was supported by the National Cancer Institute, or NCI (grants R01CA79765, T32CA085183, F30CA177210, R01CA069212, R01CA127475 and R01CA158318), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (grant R01AI082039) and the Roswell Park-UPCI Ovarian Cancer SPORE award (grant P50CA159981), also from the NCI. Additional funds were provided by the Joanna M. Nicolay Foundation, University at Buffalo Mark Diamond Research Fund, Jennifer Linscott Tietgen Family Foundation, Roswell Park Alliance Foundation and James P. Wilmot Foundation.

The study, “Non-redundant requirement for CXCR3 signalling during tumoricidal T-cell trafficking across tumour vascular checkpoints,” is available online at


The mission of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center is to understand, prevent and cure cancer. Founded in 1898, Roswell Park is one of the first cancer centers in the country to be named a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center and remains the only facility with this designation in Upstate New York. The Institute is a member of the prestigious National Comprehensive Cancer Network, an alliance of the nation’s leading cancer centers; maintains affiliate sites; and is a partner in national and international collaborative programs. For more information, visit, call 1-800-ROSWELL (1-800-767-9355) or email Follow Roswell Park on Facebook and Twitter.

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