Article Text

Download PDFPDF

650 Target the activin receptor 1c on CD4+ T cells to achieve anti-tumor therapeutic effects
  1. Ying Zheng1,
  2. Andriana Lebid2,
  3. Andrew Pardoll2,
  4. Juan Fu2,
  5. Chirag Patel2 and
  6. Xiaoxu Wang2
  1. 1Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, United States
  2. 2Johns Hopkins Univ, School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, United States


Background Activins, members of the transforming growth factor-ß (TGF-ß) superfamily, were isolated and identified in endocrine system, and have been widely studied in endocrine-related cancers,1 2 but not substantially in the context of immune system and endocrine-unrelated cancers.3–5 It has been reported that upon binding to the receptors, activins cause the intracellular recruitment and phosphorylation of smad proteins, which mediate the expression of Foxp3.6–9 Therefore, we hypothesized that the blockade of the interaction of activins and their receptors will inhibit the activins-mediated Foxp3 induction in CD4+ T cells, thus modify the immune suppressive tumor microenvironment and achieve the goal of cancer immunotherapy.

Methods ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) has been performed to determine the plasma level of Activin A in tumor-bearing mice and cancer patients. In vitro iTreg (induced regulatory T cells) differentiation has been done to naïve CD4+ cells isolated from wild type mice in the presence or absence of Activin A, and the percentage of Foxp3+ cells was demonstrated by flow cytometric analysis. qRT-PCR analysis has been conducted to determine the mRNA level of activin receptor isotypes in the immune subpopulations sorted from Foxp3-YFP mice. In the end, in vivo subcutaneous transplanted tumor studies have been done to evaluate the anti-tumor therapeutic effects of activin-receptor 1c blockade.

Results We show here that tumor-bearing mice had elevated Activin A levels, which correlated directly with tumor burden. Likewise, cancer patients had elevated plasma Activin A compared to healthy controls. Importantly, our in vitro studies suggested that Activin A promoted differentiation of conventional CD4+ cells into Foxp3-expressing induced Tregs, especially when TGF-ß was limited. Database and qRT-PCR analysis of sorted major immune cell subsets in mice revealed that activin receptor 1C (Acvr1c) was uniquely expressed on Tregs and was highly upregulated during iTreg differentiation. Mice deficient in Acvr1c were more resistant to cancer progression compared to wild type mice. This phenotype correlated with reduced expression of the FoxP3 transcription factor in CD4+ cells. Similar phenomena were observed when we treated the mice with anti-Acvr1c antibody after tumor inoculation. This anti-tumor therapeutic effect was more significant when anti-Acvr1c antibody was administrated in combination with anti-PD-1 antibody.

Conclusions Blocking Activin A signaling through its receptor 1c is a promising and disease-specific strategy for preventing the accumulation of immunosuppressive iTregs in cancer. Hence it represents a potential candidate for cancer immunotherapy.

Acknowledgements This research is supported by the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute (Immunometabolism Program & Immune Modulation Program), the Melanoma Research Alliance, the NIH (RO1AI099300, RO1AI089830, and R01AI137046), and The DoD (PC130767).


  1. Risbridger GP, Schmitt JF, Robertson DM. Activins and inhibins in endocrine and other tumors. Endocr Rev 2001;22(6):836–858.

  2. Cui X, et al. Perspectives of small molecule inhibitors of activin receptor-like kinase in anti-tumor treatment and stem cell differentiation (Review). Mol Med Rep 2019;19(6):5053–5062.

  3. Michael IP, et al. ALK7 signaling manifests a homeostatic tissue barrier that is abrogated during tumorigenesis and metastasis. Dev Cell 2019;49(3):409–424.

  4. Wu B, et al. The TGF-ß superfamily cytokine Activin-A is induced during autoimmune neuroinflammation and drives pathogenic Th17 cell differentiation. Immunity 2021;54(2):308–323.

  5. Antsiferova M, et al. Activin promotes skin carcinogenesis by attraction and reprogramming of macrophages. MBO Mol Med 2017;9(1):27–45.

  6. Tsuchida K, et al. Activin isoforms signal through type I receptor serine/threonine kinase ALK7. Mol Cell Endocrinol 2004;220(1–2):59–65.

  7. Khalil AM, et al. Differential binding activity of TGF-ß family proteins to select TGF-ß receptors. J Pharmacol Exp Ther 2016;358(3):423–430.

  8. Huber S, et al. Activin a promotes the TGF-beta-induced conversion of CD4+CD25- T cells into Foxp3+ induced regulatory T cells. J Immunol 2009;182(8):4633–4640.

  9. Iizuka-Koga M, et al. Induction and maintenance of regulatory T cells by transcription factors and epigenetic modifications. J Autoimmun 2017;83:113–121.

Ethics Approval All animal experiments were performed under protocols approved by the Johns Hopkins University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.