This report addresses whether small molecules can deplete FoxP3-expressing regulatory T (T reg) cells, thereby augmenting antitumor immunity. Imatinib, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor of oncogenic BCR-ABL protein expressed by chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) cells, possesses off-targets including LCK expressed in T cells. We showed that imatinib-treated CML patients in complete molecular remission (CMR) exhibited selective depletion of effector T reg (eT reg) cells and significant increase in effector/memory CD8+ T cells while non-CMR patients did not. Imatinib at CML-therapeutic concentrations indeed induced apoptosis specifically in eT reg cells and expanded tumor antigen–specific CD8+ T cells in vitro in healthy individuals and melanoma patients, and suppressed colon tumor growth in vivo in mice. Mechanistically, because of FoxP3-dependent much lower expression of LCK and ZAP-70 in T reg cells compared with other T cells, imatinib inhibition of LCK further reduced their TCR signal intensity, rendering them selectively susceptible to signal-deprived apoptotis. Taken together, eT reg cell depletion by imatinib is instrumental in evoking effective immune responses to various cancers.

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