Mempel, T. R., Krappmann, D. (2022). J Immunother Cancer 10.
An innovative strategy for cancer therapy is to combine the inhibition of cancer cell-intrinsic oncogenic signaling with cancer cell-extrinsic immunological activation of the tumor microenvironment (TME). In general, such approaches will focus on two or more distinct molecular targets in the malignant cells and in cells of the surrounding TME. In contrast, the protease Mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue protein 1 (MALT1) represents a candidate to enable such a dual approach by engaging only a single target. Originally identified and now in clinical trials as a lymphoma drug target based on its role in the survival and proliferation of malignant lymphomas addicted to chronic B cell receptor signaling, MALT1 proteolytic activity has recently gained additional attention through reports describing its tumor-promoting roles in several types of non-hematological solid cancer, such as breast cancer and glioblastoma. Besides cancer cells, regulatory T (Treg) cells in the TME are particularly dependent on MALT1 to sustain their immune-suppressive functions, and MALT1 inhibition can selectively reprogram tumor-infiltrating Treg cells into Foxp3-expressing proinflammatory antitumor effector cells. Thereby, MALT1 inhibition induces local inflammation in the TME and synergizes with anti-PD-1 checkpoint blockade to induce antitumor immunity and facilitate tumor control or rejection. This new concept of boosting tumor immunotherapy in solid cancer by MALT1 precision targeting in the TME has now entered clinical evaluation. The dual effects of MALT1 inhibitors on cancer cells and immune cells therefore offer a unique opportunity for combining precision oncology and immunotherapy to simultaneously impair cancer cell growth and neutralize immunosuppression in the TME. Further, MALT1 targeting may provide a proof of concept that modulation of Treg cell function in the TME represents a feasible strategy to augment the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy. Here, we review the role of MALT1 protease in physiological and oncogenic signaling, summarize the landscape of tumor indications for which MALT1 is emerging as a therapeutic target, and consider strategies to increase the chances for safe and successful use of MALT1 inhibitors in cancer therapy.