Phenotypic screening reveals TNFR2 as a promising target for cancer immunotherapy.

20 Jul 2018

Antibodies that target cell-surface molecules on T cells can enhance anti-tumor immune responses, resulting in sustained immune-mediated control of cancer. We set out to find new cancer immunotherapy targets by phenotypic screening on human regulatory T (Treg) cells and report the discovery of novel activators of tumor necrosis factor receptor 2 (TNFR2) and a potential role for this target in immunotherapy. A diverse phage display library was screened to find antibody mimetics with preferential binding to Treg cells, the most Treg-selective of which were all, without exception, found to bind specifically to TNFR2. A subset of these TNFR2 binders were found to agonise the receptor, inducing iκ-B degradation and NF-κB pathway signalling in vitro. TNFR2 was found to be expressed by tumor-infiltrating Treg cells, and to a lesser extent Teff cells, from three lung cancer patients, and a similar pattern was also observed in mice implanted with CT26 syngeneic tumors. In such animals, TNFR2-specific agonists inhibited tumor growth, enhanced tumor infiltration by CD8+ T cells and increased CD8+ T cell IFN-γ synthesis. Together, these data indicate a novel mechanism for TNF-α-independent TNFR2 agonism in cancer immunotherapy, and demonstrate the utility of target-agnostic screening in highlighting important targets during drug discovery.