Tumor necrosis factor, lymphotoxin and cancer

IUBMB Life. 2010 Apr;62(4):283-9. doi: 10.1002/iub.309.


Initially TNF has been discovered as an anti-tumor factor, but it is now considered as one of the universal effectors of innate signaling implicating its key role in host defense and inflammation. Other physiological functions of TNF are primarily linked to organization of lymphoid tissues. TNF can exert deleterious effects on the organism when its local or systemic concentrations exceed certain levels. This is the main reason for the failure of TNF therapy in oncology. Moreover, in certain experimental models TNF to TNFRp55 signaling axis was found to play a pro-tumorigenic role. On the other hand, anti-TNF therapy proved to be beneficial in rheumatic and other autoimmune diseases. Taking into consideration the pivotal function of TNF in the immune system, it is obvious that such therapy cannot be entirely free of adverse effects including suppression of host defense and, possibly, predisposition to lymphomas. Lymphotoxins alpha and beta are the two related cytokines that exist in distinct trimeric forms which can signal through TNFR I and TNFR II, as well LTbetaR receptors, depending on the composition of the trimer. These signals have important functions in the development and homeostasis of the immune system. Importantly, there is a recently uncovered link between the LTalpha/LTbeta to LTbetaR signaling axis and cancer. Here we review the current status of the field with the focus on one particular issue: are TNF and lymphotoxins intrinsically anti-cancer or pro-tumorigenic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Lymphotoxin-alpha / immunology*
  • Mice
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Receptors, Tumor Necrosis Factor / immunology
  • Signal Transduction / immunology
  • Tumor Necrosis Factors / immunology*


  • Cytokines
  • Lymphotoxin-alpha
  • Receptors, Tumor Necrosis Factor
  • Tumor Necrosis Factors