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New Perspectives on Cancer and the Immune System

Three Cancer Research Institute Scientists Describe Immunity's Paradoxical Role in the Promotion and Control of Cancer

In a new review article published in yesterday’s special section of Science focusing on the past forty years since the U.S. declared “War on Cancer,” three Cancer Research Institute scientists describe how advances in the field of tumor immunology have revealed a complex and paradoxical relationship between cancer and the immune system, and discuss how a growing understanding of this relationship is providing a scientific foundation for new therapies capable of unleashing the immune system’s protective powers against cancer.

Several recent breakthroughs in cancer treatment are based in immunological principles described in the review. These include Provenge® (sipuleucel-T), a dendritic cell vaccine that received FDA approval in April 2009 for the treatment of advanced, hormone-refractory prostate cancer, the successful monoclonal antibodies Herceptin® and Rituxan® approved in the 1990s for the treatment of breast cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, emerging therapeutic cancer vaccines, and new treatment strategies that combine standard chemotherapy and radiation therapy with investigational cancer immunotherapies. The review places these treatment advances within a scientific context spanning a century of laboratory and clinical effort aimed at learning how to direct the power of the immune system to fight cancer.

Authors Robert D. Schreiber, Ph.D., at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO; Lloyd J. Old, M.D., at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY; and Mark J. Smyth, Ph.D., at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia, describe in their review how fundamental discoveries made over the past forty years reveal that the immune system plays a dual role in protecting against cancer and in promoting cancer growth. Taken together, these insights support a unifying conceptual framework they call “cancer immunoediting.”

“The cancer immunoediting paradigm succeeds in answering a number of questions that have eluded tumor immunologists for decades, such as why tumors can sometimes lie dormant in patients for years before re-emerging, and why tumors grow despite evidence that they provoke an immune response,” says Schreiber. “It also provides a platform for improving current cancer treatments and developing new therapeutic strategies that aim to interfere with or reverse phases of the immunoediting process that contribute to tumor growth.”

During cancer immunoediting, the immune system is able to recognize and attack the most immunologically vulnerable cancer cells, i.e. those cancer cells that clearly appear dangerous to the immune system because they display molecular markers, called antigens, that identify them as damaged, secrete chemicals associated with dysfunctional cellular activity, or otherwise behave in ways the immune system recognizes to be dangerous. Schreiber, Old, and colleagues have called this first phase of cancer immunoediting the “elimination” phase.

“It has long been thought that elimination is occurring all the time in healthy hosts,” says Schreiber, “where the immune system is able to destroy nascent cancerous cells before they can develop into tumors.” This process has not yet been observed directly in living animals or humans, but has been inferred by the presence of tumor-specific immune cells and antibodies found in cancer patients.

In the second phase of cancer immunoediting, called “equilibrium,” surviving cancer cells continue to divide rapidly, accumulating mutational changes by chance or in response to immunological pressures that enable tumors to impair the immune system’s ability to eliminate them. Rather, a balance between immune control and tumor growth is maintained, giving the appearance of tumor dormancy.

Over time, however, cancer cells can continue to undergo sculpting by the immune system and eventually enter into the third and final phase, “escape.” During the escape phase, tumor cells that have acquired the ability to circumvent immune recognition and/or destruction emerge as progressively growing, visible tumors. The switch from equilibrium to escape can be caused either by changes in the tumor cells in response to the immune system’s editing functions, or because the immune system changes in response to increased cancer-induced immunosuppression or immune system deterioration.

The ability of cancers to evade immune attack has recently been accepted as one of the key defining characteristics, or hallmarks, of cancer, as described in a recent paper from Hanahan and Weinberg published earlier this month in Cell. How cancer evades the immune system is still a topic of intense research, as Schreiber, Old, and Smyth describe in their review.

“Some cancer cells stop signaling danger to the immune system through loss of the ability to process and present surface markers that help identify them to the immune system,” says Old. Without signals that differentiate them from normal cells, these cancer cells become “invisible” to the immune system.

Another channel for tumor escape is opened when cancer cells establish an immunosuppressive state within the tumor microenvironment. According to Old, tumor cells initiate a process involving a complex network of regulatory cells and molecules that can effectively shut down immune recognition and control of the tumor. This process normally functions to prevent the dangers of autoimmunity, a state where the immune system attacks and destroys normal cells of the body.

A key immune cell involved in inhibiting immune responses in both tumor immunity and autoimmunity is the regulatory T cell. Studies of tumors infiltrated with immune cells have demonstrated a clear relationship between the ratio of regulatory cells to effector, or cell-killing, immune cells and overall patient prognosis, with those having fewer regulatory cells faring better than patients whose tumors are more immunosuppressive.

According to the paper's authors, to be effective, cancer immunotherapies will have to increase the quality or quantity of immune cells capable of eliminating cancer cells, reveal additional protective tumor antigens, and/or eliminate cancer-induced immunosuppression. Multiple forms of immunotherapy are being explored to achieve these objectives, including therapeutic cancer vaccines, adoptive transfer of tumor-specific immune cells, monoclonal antibodies that target cancer cells for elimination, and approaches that inhibit or destroy molecular or cellular mediators of cancer-induced immunosuppression.

“Indeed, the interface between conventional approaches such as surgery, radiotherapy, standard, and new small molecule targeted chemotherapies (e.g. Gleevec®, kinase and B-raf inhibitors) and all of these new immunotherapeutic approaches is extremely exciting,” Smyth says. “It will prove a special challenge for institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and regulatory authorities alike to rationally deliver these combinations to cancer patients in a timely way.”

"After a long and controversial history, immunological approaches to the control and treatment of cancer are now established on a firm experimental foundation," says Old. "Advances in the field of cancer immunology, from the definition of cancer antigens to the understanding and control of cancer related immunosuppression, are pointing the way to a new era in cancer therapy based on the specificity and power of the immune system."

The authors point to future work in cancer immunoediting that will address questions like: which components of the immune system play a role in each of the three phases of cancer immunoediting and how, what are the specific differences between tumor antigens on immunoedited cells compared to unedited tumors, is it possible to predict how a tumor will be immunoedited based on the types of antigens that are expressed, is a durable state of immune equilibrium a desirable and attainable endpoint for cancer immunotherapy, and how can we most effectively inhibit cancer-induced immunosuppression at the tumor site without inducing autoimmunity?

Finding answers to each of these important questions will provide tumor immunologists with further insights needed to optimize immunotherapies for use in treating cancer patients.

In 2007, the Schreiber, Old, and Smyth jointly received the Charles Rodolphe Brupbacher Prize for Cancer Research for their joint and complementary contributions to the field of cancer immunology and, particularly, to a better understanding of the concepts of cancer immunosurveillance and immunoediting. The three scientists also received the Cancer Research Institute William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology: Old (1975), Schreiber (2001), and Smyth (2002).

Publication Citation:
R. D. Schreiber et al. Cancer Immunoediting: Integrating Immunity’s Roles in Cancer Suppression and Promotion. Science 331, 1565 (2011); DOI: 10.1126/science.1203486

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Supplemental Interview
Author Robert D. Schreiber discusses immunoediting on the Science Podcast, available at:

Media Contact:
Brian M. Brewer, Cancer Research Institute
Tel: +1(212)688-7515, ext. 242
About the Cancer Research Institute
The Cancer Research Institute (CRI), established in 1953, is the world’s only nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to transforming cancer patient care by advancing scientific efforts that are leading to new and effective immune system-based strategies to treat, control, and prevent cancer. Guided by a world-renowned Scientific Advisory Council that includes four Nobel laureates and twenty-nine members of the National Academy of Sciences, CRI supports research conducted by immunologists and tumor immunologists at leading medical centers and universities across the globe, and has contributed to many of the key scientific advances that demonstrate the potential for immunotherapy to change the face of cancer treatment.

The Cancer Research Institute has one of the lowest overhead expense ratios among nonprofit organizations, with approximately 85 percent of its resources going directly to the support of its science, medical, and research programs. CRI meets or exceeds all 20 standards of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, the most comprehensive U.S. charity evaluation service, and has earned the GuideStar Exchange Seal, indicating our commitment to the transparency of our organizational information to donors, funders, those we serve, the public, and regulators. CRI has also received an ‘A’ grade for fiscal disclosure and efficiency from the American Institute of Philanthropy, as well as top accolades from other charity watchdog organizations. For more information, visit

Brian M. Brewer | Newswise Science News
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