Roles of the immune system in skin cancer

Br J Dermatol. 2011 Nov;165(5):953-65. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2011.10507.x.


Over the past several decades, there has been increasing interest in understanding the roles of the immune system in the development and progression of cancer. The importance of the immune system in human skin cancer has been long recognized based primarily upon the increased incidence of skin cancers in organ transplant recipients and mechanisms of ultraviolet (UV) radiation-mediated immunomodulation. In this review, we integrate multiple lines of evidence highlighting the roles of the immune system in skin cancer. First, we discuss the concepts of cancer immunosurveillance and immunoediting as they might relate to human skin cancers. We then describe the clinical and molecular mechanisms of skin cancer development and progression in the contexts of therapeutic immunosuppression in organ transplant recipients, viral oncogenesis, and UV radiation-induced immunomodulation with a primary focus on basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. The clinical evidence supporting expanding roles for immunotherapy is also described. Finally, we discuss recent research examining the functions of particular immune cell subsets in skin cancer and how they might contribute to both antitumour and protumour effects. A better understanding of the biological mechanisms of cancer immunosurveillance holds the promise of enabling better therapies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Immune System / immunology*
  • Immunosuppression Therapy / methods
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / adverse effects
  • Immunotherapy / methods
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Lymphocyte Subsets
  • Risk Factors
  • Skin Neoplasms / etiology
  • Skin Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Skin Neoplasms / therapy
  • Ultraviolet Rays / adverse effects
  • Virus Diseases / complications
  • Wound Healing / immunology


  • Immunosuppressive Agents