Regulatory T-cells (TREG) are the gateway to immune function and typically regulate immune cell activation. Cytokines, including interleukin-2 (IL-2), induce T-cell differentiation and promote a regulatory phenotype. Once activated via the IL-2 receptor (IL-2R), a cascade of events in T-cells initiate signal transducer and activator of transcription 5 (STAT5) and Forkhead box P3 (FOXP3) activation which appear to function as important regulators of this immunologic pathway and promote the development and function of TREG cells. In non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), we have found that intratumoral TREG cells are increased in number and suppress immune function. In previous work, we have found that TREG cells inhibit T-cell proliferation, suppress cytokine production and limit effector cell cytotoxicity. We have also shown that increased serum levels of soluble sIL-2Rα is a prognostic factor in NHL and that sIL-2Rα can bind to IL-2 and promote its signaling thereby increasing TREG cell numbers. In this study, we developed a strategy to inhibit the binding of IL-2 to sIL-2Rα with the goal of suppressing the induction of FOXP3 and decreasing TREG cell numbers. To do this, we developed peptides designed to disrupt the interaction between IL2 and sILRα.

In collaboration with CMDBioscienceSM, we developed and analyzed 22 peptide compounds derived by structure-based computational design. Initially, we screened each peptide at increasing concentrations using an ELISA assay to test the inhibition of IL-2/IL-2Rα binding by the solubilized peptide. Candidate peptides were then further tested using upregulation of pSTAT5 and FOXP3 in T-cells measured by flow cytometry as a measure of inhibition of IL-2 signaling. The peptides were developed according to different design hypotheses and grouped into different families; the screening ELISA results indicated 4 promising peptides that inhibited IL2/IL2Rα binding (up to 100% inhibition; max peptide concentration of 100uM). These peptides were then used to determine their effect on STAT5 and FOXP3 expression. A lead candidate peptide consistently reduced the expression of FOXP3 and STAT5 expression compared to cells not exposed to peptide. Use of the peptide to disrupt IL-2 signaling inhibited the development of cells with a TREG phenotype.

We conclude that structure-based peptide design can be used to identify novel peptide inhibitors that block IL-2/IL-2Rα signaling and inhibit STAT5 and FOXP3 upregulation. These peptides could be used as new therapeutic agents to limit immune suppression by TREG cells and promote a more effective anti-tumor immune response in NHL.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.