The concept of cancer immunotherapy provides a fresh perspective as it is not associated with many of the drawbacks of conventional therapies such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. When fully activated the immune system has immense potential as is evident from mis-matched transplanted organs undergoing rapid immunological attack and rejection. However, the development of immune strategies for cancer therapy has been associated with challenges of their own. Early attempts at cancer vaccination were carried out in an empirical manner that did not always lead to reproducibility. This led to a search of tumor associated antigens with the belief that specific targeting of these antigens would lead to successful tumor elimination. Active vaccination with TAA peptides or passive vaccination with specific lymphocytes against these TAAs did not however demonstrate encouraging results in clinical trials. This was mainly because of the lack of an activating immune response which is required for continuous stimulation of lymphocytes and also because of the selection of tumor escape variants that did not express the particular TAA. On the positive side, attempts at characterizing TAAs illuminated the molecular changes that attribute a malignant phenotype to cancer cells. Attempts at cytokine therapy were also met with challenges of high systemic toxicity and a lack of specific lymphocyte activation. It was therefore realized that an ideal vaccinating agent should be able to combine the effects of both these therapeutic strategies, i.e., it should be able to induce an innate immune response which can be tailored to a tumor specific adaptive immune response. By this, the immunosuppressive tumor environment can be altered to become immune activating, thus facilitating the infiltration of myeloid and lymphoid cells that can act in concert leading to tumor regression. In this regard, immunotherapeutic approaches such as DNA vaccines, dendritic cell based vaccines, HSP based vaccines and gene transfer technology, are being developed and further refined to overcome their inherent limitations. Animal experiments with these therapeutic modalities have demonstrated exciting results, although their evaluation in clinical trials has not indicated exceptional tumor protection in a large percentage of the patients. These observations only further underscore the multivariate and dynamic nature of the immune system and the many ways in which tumor cells modulate themselves and their surroundings to escape immune surveillance. Assessment of successful therapeutic intervention will require periodic evaluations of the suppressive nature of the tumor microenvironment accompanied by qualitative and quantitative measurements of lymphocyte responses in patients. With the development of advanced genetic technologies and continuous identification of tumor antigens, the field of cancer immunotherapy is progressing at an exciting pace giving us hope for the advent of effective treatment modalities that will prolong tumor free survival and enhance the quality of life in patients with malignant disease.
Immune System, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, TAA peptides, lymphocytes, cytokine