VIB-RUG Department of Molecular Biomedical Research

Molecular ImmunoBiotechnology Unit









Up Immunology Tumor antigen Immunotherapy

Ever since the first use of smallpox vaccine in the late 1700s, therapies have been designed to activate the immune system to fight various infectious diseases. However, it is only recently that significant research has focused on the activation of the immune system in the treatment of cancer.

A growing understanding of the events that occur when cancer cells challenge the immune system has given hope to clinical researchers that therapeutic vaccines may be useful in the treatment of cancer. Cancer immunotherapy is an approach to address the significant medical need for new cancer therapies and to overcome the limitations of current therapies. Therapeutic approaches for cancer immunotherapy generally fall into three categories:

bulletPassive Immunotherapy
bulletNon-specific Immunotherapy
bulletActive Specific Immunotherapy


Passive Immunotherapy

For decades, cancer research has focused on the development of therapies that would target cancer cells more selectively. The discovery of monoclonal antibodies in the 1970s became the foundation of passive immunotherapy approaches today that are designed to selectively interfere with tumor cell functioning.

Non-Specific Immunotherapy

This type of therapy includes the use of compounds including cytokines such as interferon, interleukin and BCG, that upregulate the general immune system response to cancer. However, cytokine therapy suffers from the same limitations as does chemotherapy in that cytokines lack selectivity and are associated with significant toxicity. Interferon and IL-2, as used in the treatment of melanoma, are examples of cytokines that have significant side effects in most patients.

Active Specific Immunotherapy

The immune response to cancer is strongly triggered by the presence of specific antigens or molecular markers on the tumor cell surface that act as red flags to the immune system. Purified antigens, peptides, gene-based systems, or antigens contained in whole cells or cell lysates are used in active specific immunotherapy for cancer, also known as therapeutic cancer vaccines.

Unlike chemotherapy, active specific immunotherapy does not directly kill cancer cells, but instead generates a specific and targeted humoral and/or cellular immune response against the cancer and stimulates an increase in the number and type of immune cells and antibodies capable of responding to cancer. In addition, therapeutic cancer vaccines may activate the immune system to overcome the immunosuppression caused by tumor growth and development.

When effective, therapeutic cancer vaccines may improve disease-free intervals in patients and increase overall survival, without the major side effects associated with chemotherapeutic and biotherapeutic products.


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