Active, but dysfunctional, immune responses in patients with cancer have been studied in several tumour types, but owing to the heterogeneity of cancer theories of common reaction mechanisms seem to be obsolete. In this Review of published clinical studies of patients with cancer, expression and interplay of the following cytokines are examined: interleukin 2, interleukin 6, interleukin 8, interleukin 10, interleukin 12, interleukin 18, tumour necrosis factor α (TNFα), transforming growth factor β (TGFβ), interferon-γ, HLA-DR, macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF), and C-X-C motif chemokine receptor 4 (CXCR4). Clinical data were analysed in a non-quantitative descriptive manner and interpreted with regard to experimentally established physiological cytokine interactions. The clinical cytokine pattern that emerged suggests that simultaneous immunostimulation and immunosuppression occur in patients with cancer, with increased concentrations of the cytokines MIF, TNFα, interleukin 6, interleukin 8, interleukin 10, interleukin 18, and TGFβ. This specific cytokine pattern seems to have a prognostic effect, since high interleukin 6 or interleukin 10 serum concentrations are associated with negative prognoses in independent cancer types. Although immunostimulatory cytokines are involved in local cancer-associated inflammation, cancer cells seem to be protected from immunological eradication by cytokine-mediated local immunosuppression and a resulting defect of the interleukin 12-interferon-γ-HLA-DR axis. Cytokines produced by tumours might have a pivotal role in this defect. A working hypothesis is that the cancer-specific and histology-independent uniform cytokine cascade is one of the manifestations of the underlying paraneoplastic systemic disease, and this hypothesis links the stage of cancer with both the functional status of the immune system and the patient's prognosis. Neutralisation of this cytokine pattern could offer novel and so far unexploited treatment approaches for cancer.
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