Immune-based mechanisms of cytotoxic chemotherapy: implications for the design of novel and rationale-based combined treatments against cancer

Cell Death Differ. 2014 Jan;21(1):15-25. doi: 10.1038/cdd.2013.67. Epub 2013 Jun 21.


Conventional anticancer chemotherapy has been historically thought to act through direct killing of tumor cells. This concept stems from the fact that cytotoxic drugs interfere with DNA synthesis and replication. Accumulating evidence, however, indicates that the antitumor activities of chemotherapy also rely on several off-target effects, especially directed to the host immune system, that cooperate for successful tumor eradication. Chemotherapeutic agents stimulate both the innate and adaptive arms of the immune system through several modalities: (i) by promoting specific rearrangements on dying tumor cells, which render them visible to the immune system; (ii) by influencing the homeostasis of the hematopoietic compartment through transient lymphodepletion followed by rebound replenishment of immune cell pools; (iii) by subverting tumor-induced immunosuppressive mechanisms and (iv) by exerting direct or indirect stimulatory effects on immune effectors. Among the indirect ways of immune cell stimulation, some cytotoxic drugs have been shown to induce an immunogenic type of cell death in tumor cells, resulting in the emission of specific signals that trigger phagocytosis of cell debris and promote the maturation of dendritic cells, ultimately resulting in the induction of potent antitumor responses. Here, we provide an extensive overview of the multiple immune-based mechanisms exploited by the most commonly employed cytotoxic drugs, with the final aim of identifying prerequisites for optimal combination with immunotherapy strategies for the development of more effective treatments against cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptive Immunity
  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / toxicity
  • Cell Death / drug effects
  • Dendritic Cells / immunology
  • Dendritic Cells / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Antineoplastic Agents