Toxicities of Immunotherapy for the Practitioner

J Clin Oncol. 2015 Jun 20;33(18):2092-9. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2014.60.0379. Epub 2015 Apr 27.


The toxicities of immunotherapy for cancer are as diverse as the type of treatments that have been devised. These range from cytokine therapies that induce capillary leakage to vaccines associated with low levels of autoimmunity to cell therapies that can induce damaging cross-reactivity with normal tissue to checkpoint protein inhibitors that induce immune-related adverse events that are autoinflammatory in nature. The thread that ties these toxicities together is their mechanism-based immune nature and the T-cell-mediated adverse events seen. The basis for the majority of these adverse events is a hyperactivated T-cell response with reactivity directed against normal tissue, resulting in the generation of high levels of CD4 T-helper cell cytokines or increased migration of cytolytic CD8 T cells within normal tissues. The T-cell immune response is not tissue specific and may reflect a diffuse expansion of the T-cell repertoire that induces cross-reactivity with normal tissue, effectively breaking tolerance that is active with cytokines, vaccines, and checkpoint protein inhibitors and passive in the case of adoptive cell therapy. Cytokines seem to generate diffuse and nonspecific T-cell reactivity, whereas checkpoint protein inhibition, vaccines, and adoptive cell therapy seem to activate more specific T cells that interact directly with normal tissues, potentially causing specific organ damage. In this review, we summarize the toxicities that are unique to immunotherapies, emphasizing the need to familiarize the oncology practitioner with the spectrum of adverse events seen with newly approved and emerging modalities.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autoimmunity / immunology
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / cytology
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / cytology
  • Cancer Vaccines / chemistry
  • Cell- and Tissue-Based Therapy
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy / adverse effects*
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Immunotherapy, Adoptive
  • Interferon-alpha / chemistry
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Neoplasms / therapy*


  • Cancer Vaccines
  • Cytokines
  • Interferon-alpha