Cancer testis antigens (CTA) are a large family of tumor-associated antigens expressed in human tumors of different histological origin, but not in normal tissues except for testis and placenta. This tumor-restricted pattern of expression, together with their strong in vivo immunogenicity, identified CTA as ideal targets for tumor-specific immunotherapeutic approaches, and prompted the development of several clinical trials of CTA-based vaccine therapy. Driven by this practical clinical interest, a more detailed characterization of CTA biology has been recently undertaken. So far, at least 70 families of CTA, globally accounting for about 140 members, have been identified. Most of these CTA are expressed during spermatogenesis, but their function is still largely unknown. Epigenetic events, particularly DNA methylation, appear to be the primary mechanism regulating CTA expression in both normal and transformed cells, as well as in cancer stem cells. In view of the growing interest in CTA biology, the aim of this review is to provide the most recent information on their expression, regulation and function, together with a brief summary of the major clinical trials involving CTA as therapeutic agents. The pharmacologic modulation of CTA expression profiles on neoplastic cells by DNA hypomethylating drugs will also be discussed as a feasible approach to design new combination therapies potentially able to improve the clinical efficacy of currently adopted CTA-based immunotherapeutic regimens in cancer patients.
Copyright © 2011 Federation of European Biochemical Societies. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.