School of Medicine Publications and Presentations

Document Type


Publication Date



Immune checkpoint molecules function as a system of checks and balances that enhance or inhibit immune responses to infectious agents, foreign tissues, and cancerous cells. Immunotherapies that target immune checkpoint molecules, particularly the inhibitory molecules programmed cell death 1 and cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated protein 4 (CTLA-4), have revolutionized human oncology in recent years, yet little is known about these key immune signaling molecules in species other than primates and rodents. The Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease is caused by transmissible cancers that have resulted in a massive decline in the wild Tasmanian devil population. We have recently demonstrated that the inhibitory checkpoint molecule PD-L1 is upregulated on Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) facial tumor cells in response to the interferon-gamma cytokine. As this could play a role in immune evasion by tumor cells, we performed a thorough comparative analysis of checkpoint molecule protein sequences among Tasmanian devils and eight other species. We report that many of the key signaling motifs and ligand-binding sites in the checkpoint molecules are highly conserved across the estimated 162 million years of evolution since the last common ancestor of placental and non-placental mammals. Specifically, we discovered that the CTLA-4 (MYPPPY) ligand-binding motif and the CTLA-4 (GVYVKM) inhibitory domain are completely conserved across all nine species used in our comparative analysis, suggesting that the function of CTLA-4 is likely conserved in these species. We also found that cysteine residues for intra- and intermolecular disulfide bonds were also highly conserved. For instance, all 20 cysteine residues involved in disulfide bonds in the human 4-1BB molecule were also present in devil 4-1BB. Although many key sequences were conserved, we have also identified immunoreceptor tyrosine-based inhibitory motifs (ITIMs) and immunoreceptor tyrosine-based switch motifs (ITSMs) in genes and protein domains that have not been previously reported in any species. This checkpoint molecule analysis and review of salient features for each of the molecules presented here can serve as road map for the development of a Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease immunotherapy. Finally, the strategies can be used as a guide for veterinarians, ecologists, and other researchers willing to venture into the nascent field of wild immunology.


Copyright © 2017 Flies, Blackburn, Lyons, Hayball and Woods.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Publication Title

Frontiers in Immunology



Academic Level


Mentor/PI Department

Office of Human Genetics



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.