Does the immune system see tumors as foreign or self?

Annu Rev Immunol. 2003;21:807-39. doi: 10.1146/annurev.immunol.21.120601.141135. Epub 2001 Dec 19.


Given the vast number of genetic and epigenetic changes associated with carcinogenesis, it is clear that tumors express many neoantigens. A central question in cancer immunology is whether recognition of tumor antigens by the immune system leads to activation (i.e., surveillance) or tolerance. Paradoxically, while strong evidence exists that specific immune surveillance systems operate at early stages of tumorigenesis, established tumors primarily induce immune tolerance. A unifying hypothesis posits that the fundamental processes of cancer progression, namely tissue invasion and metastasis, are inherently proinflammatory and thus activating for innate and adaptive antitumor immunity. To elude immune surveillance, tumors must develop mechanisms that block the elaboration and sensing of proinflammatory danger signals, thereby shifting the balance from activation to tolerance induction. Elucidation of these mechanisms provides new strategies for cancer immunotherapy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Neoplasm / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immune Tolerance
  • Immunotherapy
  • Mice
  • Models, Immunological
  • Monitoring, Immunologic
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Neoplasms / therapy
  • Receptors, Immunologic / metabolism
  • Receptors, Natural Killer Cell


  • Antigens, Neoplasm
  • Receptors, Immunologic
  • Receptors, Natural Killer Cell