Cytotoxic T cells are able to efficiently eliminate cancer cells by additive cytotoxicity

Bettina Weigelin*, Annemieke Th den Boer, Esther Wagena, Kelly Broen, Harry Dolstra, Rob J. de Boer, Carl G. Figdor, Johannes Textor, Peter Friedl

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Lethal hit delivery by cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) towards B lymphoma cells occurs as a binary, “yes/no” process. In non-hematologic solid tumors, however, CTL often fail to kill target cells during 1:1 conjugation. Here we describe a mechanism of “additive cytotoxicity” by which time-dependent integration of sublethal damage events, delivered by multiple CTL transiting between individual tumor cells, mediates effective elimination. Reversible sublethal damage includes perforin-dependent membrane pore formation, nuclear envelope rupture and DNA damage. Statistical modeling reveals that 3 serial hits delivered with decay intervals below 50 min discriminate between tumor cell death or survival after recovery. In live melanoma lesions in vivo, sublethal multi-hit delivery is most effective in interstitial tissue where high CTL densities and swarming support frequent serial CTL-tumor cell encounters. This identifies CTL-mediated cytotoxicity by multi-hit delivery as an incremental and tunable process, whereby accelerating damage magnitude and frequency may improve immune efficacy.

Original languageEnglish
Article number5217
Pages (from-to)1-12
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


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