Paradigm shift in oncology: targeting the immune system rather than cancer cells

Mutagenesis. 2015 Mar;30(2):205-11. doi: 10.1093/mutage/geu073.


The clinical benefits obtained with rituximab in the treatment of CD20(+) B-cell malignancies and of imatinib in the treatment of Phi(+) leukaemias have opened a new era in oncology, transforming the concepts of tumour-targeted therapies and personalised medicine into reality. Since then, many tumour-targeted monoclonal antibodies and tyrosine kinase inhibitors have been approved for the treatment of cancers. Compared to conventional chemotherapies, these new drugs have more specificity against cancer cells and less systemic toxicities. However, like conventional chemotherapies, they often provide limited therapeutic benefits with short-lasting tumour responses as the vast majority of cancers become resistant to these drugs over time. Therefore, tumour-targeted therapies are an incremental innovation as compared to historical chemotherapies. Recently, a paradigm shift has been brought to the clinic with drugs targeting immune cells rather than cancer cells with the aim of stimulating the anti-tumour immune response of patients against their own cancer. Immunomodulatory drugs such as anti-CTLA4 and anti-PD-1 have generated long-lasting tumour responses when used as single agent in patients with refractory/relapsing cancers such as metastatic melanomas, renal cell carcinoma or non-small-cell lung carcinoma. These new immune-targeted therapies are therefore a disruptive innovation in cancer treatment: they demonstrate that long-lasting clinical benefits could be obtained by targeting molecules involved in the immune tolerance of cancer cells rather than by targeting oncogenic drivers or antigens expressed by cancer cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / immunology
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / therapeutic use*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / immunology
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / drug effects
  • Immunologic Factors / therapeutic use*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / immunology


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Immunologic Factors