Toll-like receptors 7 (TLR7) and 8 (TLR8) each sense single-stranded RNA (ssRNA), but their activation results in different immune activation profiles. Attempts to selectively target either TLR7 or TLR8 have been hindered by their high degree of homology. However, recent studies revealed that TLR7 and TLR8 bind different ligands resulting from the processing of ssRNA by endolysosomal RNases. We demonstrate that by introducing precise 2′ sugar-modified bases into oligoribonucleotides (ORNs) containing known TLR7 and TLR8 binding motifs, we could prevent RNase-mediated degradation into the monomeric uridine required for TLR8 activation while preserving TLR7 activation. Furthermore, a novel, optimized protocol for CRISPR-Cas9 knockout in primary human plasmacytoid dendritic cells showed that TLR7 activation is dependent on RNase processing of ORNs and revealed a previously undescribed role for RNase 6 in degrading ORNs into TLR ligands. Finally, 2′ sugar-modified ORNs demonstrated robust innate immune activation in mice. Altogether, we identified a strategy for creating tunable TLR7-selective agonists.

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