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Cytotoxic T cell immunity in response to chronic infections and tumours is maintained by a specialized population of CD8+ T cells that exhibit hallmarks of both exhausted and memory cells and give rise to terminally differentiated exhausted effector cells that contribute to viral or tumour control. Importantly, recent work suggests these cells, which we refer to as 'precursor exhausted' T (TPEX) cells, are responsible for the proliferative burst that generates effector T cells in response to immune checkpoint blockade targeting programmed cell death 1 (PD1), and increased TPEX cell frequencies have recently been linked to increased patient survival. We believe the recent discovery of TPEX cells not only represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of the mechanisms that maintain CD8+ T cell responses in chronic infections and tumours but also opens up unexpected avenues for the development of new and innovative therapeutic approaches. In this Opinion article, we discuss the differentiation and function of TPEX cells and suggest that targeting these cells may be key for successful immunotherapy.


Axel Kallies, Dietmar Zehn, Daniel T Utzschneider. Precursor exhausted T cells: key to successful immunotherapy? Nature reviews. Immunology. 2020 Feb;20(2):128-136

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PMID: 31591533

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