Cytotoxic immunotherapy strategies for cancer: mechanisms and clinical development

J Cell Biochem. 2011 Aug;112(8):1969-77. doi: 10.1002/jcb.23126.


Traditional therapies for cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Chemotherapy has widespread systemic cytotoxic effects against tumor cells but also affects normal cells. Radiation has more targeted local cytotoxicity but is limited to killing cells in the radiation field. Immunotherapy has the potential for systemic, specific killing of tumor cells. However, if the immune response is specific to a single antigen, tumor evasion can occur by down-regulation of that antigen. An immunotherapy approach that induces polyvalent immunity to autologous tumor antigens can provide a personalized vaccine with less potential for immunologic escape. A cytotoxic immunotherapy strategy creates such a tumor vaccine in situ. Immunogenic tumor cell death provides tumor antigen targets for the adaptive immune response and stimulates innate immunity. Attraction and activation of antigen presenting cells such as dendritic cells is important to process and present tumor antigens to T cells. These include cytotoxic T cells that kill tumor cells and T cells which positively and negatively regulate immunity. Tipping the balance in favor of anti-tumor immunity is an important aspect of an effective strategy. Clinically, immunotherapies may be most effective when combined with standard therapies in a complimentary way. An example is gene-mediated cytotoxic immunotherapy (GMCI) which uses an adenoviral vector, AdV-tk, to deliver a cytotoxic and immunostimulatory gene to tumor cells in vivo in combination with standard therapies creating an immunostimulatory milieu. This approach, studied extensively in animal models and early stage clinical trials, is now entering a definitive Phase 3 trial for prostate cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenoviridae*
  • Animals
  • Antigens, Neoplasm / genetics
  • Antigens, Neoplasm / immunology*
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Cancer Vaccines / genetics
  • Cancer Vaccines / immunology*
  • Cancer Vaccines / pharmacology*
  • Clinical Trials, Phase III as Topic
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Cellular / drug effects
  • Immunity, Cellular / genetics
  • Immunity, Cellular / immunology
  • Immunity, Innate / drug effects
  • Immunity, Innate / genetics
  • Immunity, Innate / immunology
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Male
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / immunology
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / therapy*


  • Antigens, Neoplasm
  • Cancer Vaccines