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Immunol Rev. 2019 Jan;287(1):33-49. doi: 10.1111/imr.12721.

What did we learn from CTLA-4 insufficiency on the human immune system?

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Center for Chronic Immunodeficiency (CCI), Medical Center-University of Freiburg, Faculty of Medicine, University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany.


Cytotoxic-T-lymphocyte-antigen-4 (CTLA-4) is a negative immune regulator constitutively expressed on regulatory T (Treg) cells and upregulated on activated T cells. CTLA-4 inhibits T cell activation by various suppressive functions including competition with CD28, regulation of the inhibitory function of Treg cells, such as transendocytosis, and the control of adhesion and motility. Intrinsic CTLA-4 signaling has been controversially discussed, but so far no distinct signaling pathway has been identified. The CTLA-4-mediated Treg suppression plays an important role in the maintenance of peripheral tolerance and the prevention of autoimmune diseases. Human CTLA-4 insufficiency is caused by heterozygous germline mutations in CTLA4 and characterized by a complex immune dysregulation syndrome. Clinical studies on CTLA4 mutation carriers showed a reduced penetrance and variable expressivity, suggesting modifying factor(s). One hundred and forty-eight CTLA4 mutation carriers have been reported; patients showed hypogammaglobulinemia, recurrent infectious diseases, various autoimmune diseases, and lymphocytic infiltration into multiple organs. The CTLA-4 expression level in Treg cells was reduced, while the frequency of Treg cells was increased in CTLA-4-insufficient patients. The transendocytosis assay is a specific functional test for the assessment of newly identified CTLA4 gene variants. Immunoglobulin substitution, corticosteroids, immunosuppressive therapy, and targeted therapy such as with CTLA-4 fusion proteins and mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR) inhibitors were applied; patients with life-threatening, treatment-resistant symptoms underwent hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. The fact that in humans CTLA-4 insufficiency causes severe disease taught us that the amount of CTLA-4 molecules present in/on T cells matters for immune homeostasis. However, whether the pathology-causing activated T lymphocytes in CTLA-4-insufficient patients are antigen-specific is an unsolved question. CTLA-4, in addition, has a role in autoimmune diseases and cancer. Anti-CTLA-4 drugs are employed as checkpoint inhibitors to target various forms of cancer. Thus, clinical research on human CTLA-4 insufficiency might provide us a deeper understanding of the mechanism(s) of the CTLA-4 molecule and immune dysregulation disorders.


autoimmunity; cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4; immune dysregulation; primary immune deficiency; regulatory T cell


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