Role of Local Radiation Therapy in Cancer Immunotherapy

JAMA Oncol. 2015 Dec;1(9):1325-32. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.2756.


The recent success of cancer immunotherapy has demonstrated the power of the immune system to clear tumors, generating renewed enthusiasm for identifying ways to induce antitumor immune responses in patients. Natural antitumor immune responses are detectable in a fraction of patients across multiple malignant neoplasms and can be reactivated by targeting rate-limiting immunosuppressive mechanisms. In most patients, however, interventions to induce a de novo antitumor immune response are necessary. We review growing evidence that radiation therapy targeted to the tumor can convert it into an in situ tumor vaccine by inducing release of antigens during cancer cell death in association with proinflammatory signals that trigger the innate immune system to activate tumor-specific T cells. In addition, radiation's effects on the tumor microenvironment enhance infiltration of activated T cells and can overcome some of the barriers to tumor rejection. Thus, the complementary effects of radiation on priming and effector phases of antitumor immunity make it an appealing strategy to generate immunity against a patient's own individual tumor, that through immunological memory, can result in long-lasting systemic responses. Several anecdotal cases have demonstrated the efficacy of combining radiation with available immunotherapies, and results of prospective trials are forthcoming.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, Neoplasm / immunology
  • CTLA-4 Antigen / antagonists & inhibitors
  • CTLA-4 Antigen / immunology
  • CTLA-4 Antigen / radiation effects
  • Cancer Vaccines
  • Cell Death / immunology
  • Cell Death / radiation effects
  • Combined Modality Therapy / methods
  • Dendritic Cells / immunology
  • Dendritic Cells / radiation effects
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / radiation effects*
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / radiotherapy
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / radiation effects
  • Tumor Microenvironment / immunology
  • Tumor Microenvironment / radiation effects


  • Antigens, Neoplasm
  • CTLA-4 Antigen
  • Cancer Vaccines