"Hard" and "soft" lesions underlying the HLA class I alterations in cancer cells: implications for immunotherapy

Int J Cancer. 2010 Jul 15;127(2):249-56. doi: 10.1002/ijc.25270.


The ability of cancer cells to escape from the natural or immunotherapy-induced antitumor immune response is often associated with alterations in the tumor cell surface expression of Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) Class I antigens. Considerable knowledge has been gained on the prevalence of various patterns of MHC Class I defects and the underlying molecular mechanisms in different types of cancer. In contrast, few data are available on the changes in MHC Class I expression happening during the course of cancer immunotherapy. We have recently proposed that the progression or regression of a tumor lesion in cancer patients undergoing immunotherapy could be predetermined by the molecular mechanism responsible for the MHC Class I alteration and not by the type of immunotherapy used, i.e., interleukin-2 (IL-2), Bacillus Calmette-Guèrin (BCG), interferon-alpha (IFN-alpha), peptides alone, dendritic cells loaded with peptides, protein-bound polysaccharide etc. If the molecular alteration responsible for the changes in MHC Class I expression is reversible by cytokines ("soft" lesion), the MHC Class I expression will be upregulated, the specific T cell-mediated response will increase and the lesion will regress. However, if the molecular defect is structural ("hard" lesion), the MHC Class I expression will remain low, the escape mechanism will prevail and the primary tumor or the metastatic lesion will progress. According to this idea, the nature of the preexisting MHC Class I lesion in the cancer cell has a crucial impact determining the final outcome of cancer immunotherapy. In this article, we discuss the importance of these two types of molecular mechanisms of MHC Class I-altered expression.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cancer Vaccines / therapeutic use
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy*
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Tumor Escape / physiology*


  • Cancer Vaccines
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I