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Immunotherapy of Cancer

by Dmitry Gabrilovich, MD, PhD

A number of immunologic interventions, both passive and active, can be directed against tumor cells.

Passive Cellular Immunotherapy

In passive cellular immunotherapy, specific effector cells are directly infused and are not induced or expanded within the patient.

Lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cells are produced from the patient’s endogenous T cells, which are extracted and grown in a cell culture system by exposing them to the lymphokine IL-2. The proliferated LAK cells are then returned to the patient’s bloodstream. Animal studies have shown that LAK cells are more effective against cancer cells than are the original endogenous T cells, presumably because of their greater number. Clinical trials of LAK cells in humans are ongoing.

Tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) may have greater tumoricidal activity than LAK cells. These cells are grown in culture in a manner similar to LAK cells. However, the progenitor cells consist of T cells that are isolated from resected tumor tissue. This process theoretically provides a line of T cells that has greater tumor specificity than those obtained from the bloodstream. Recent clinical studies have shown highly promising results.

Concomitant use of interferon enhances the expression of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) antigens and tumor-associated antigens (TAAs) on tumor cells, thereby augmenting the killing of tumor cells by the infused effector cells.

A new approach using T cells genetically modified to express receptors that recognize TAAs with high specificity to tumor cells is under study and may provide significant clinical benefit. Results of initial trials in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia are encouraging.

Passive Humoral Immunotherapy

Administration of exogenous antibodies constitutes passive humoral immunotherapy. Antilymphocyte serum has been used in the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia and in T-cell and B-cell lymphomas, resulting in temporary decreases in lymphocyte counts or lymph node size.

Monoclonal antitumor antibodies may also be conjugated with toxins (eg, ricin, diphtheria) or with radioisotopes so that the antibodies deliver these toxic agents specifically to the tumor cells. Another technique involves bispecific antibodies, or linkage of one antibody that reacts with the tumor cell to a second antibody that reacts with a cytotoxic effector cell. This technique brings the effector cell in close opposition to the tumor cell, resulting in increased tumoricidal activity. However, these techniques are in early stages of testing; thus, potential clinical benefits are uncertain.

Active Specific Immunotherapy

Inducing cellular immunity (involving cytotoxic T cells) in a host that failed to spontaneously develop an effective response generally involves methods to enhance presentation of tumor antigens to host effector cells. Cellular immunity can be induced to specific, very well-defined antigens. Several techniques can be used to stimulate a host response; these techniques may involve giving peptides, DNA, or tumor cells (from the host or another patient). Peptides and DNA are often given using antigen-presenting cells (dendritic cells). These dendritic cells can also be genetically modified to secrete additional immune-response stimulants (eg, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor [GM-CSF]).

Peptide-based vaccines use peptides from defined TAAs. An increasing number of TAAs have been identified as the target of T cells in cancer patients and are being tested in clinical trials. Recent data indicate that responses are most potent if TAAs are delivered using dendritic cells. These cells are obtained from the patient, loaded with the desired TAA, and then reintroduced intradermally; they stimulate endogenous T cells to respond to the TAA. The peptides also can be delivered by co-administration with immunogenic adjuvants.

DNA vaccines use recombinant DNA that encodes a specific (defined) antigenic protein. The DNA is incorporated into viruses that are injected directly into patients or, more often, introduced into dendritic cells obtained from the patients, which are then injected back into them. The DNA expresses the target antigen which triggers or enhances patients’ immune response.

Autochthonous tumor cells (cells taken from the host) have been reintroduced to the host after use of ex vivo techniques (eg, irradiation, neuraminidase treatment, hapten conjugation, hybridization with other cell lines) to reduce their malignant potential and increase their antigenic activity. Sometimes the tumor cells are genetically modified to produce immunostimulatory molecules (including cytokines such as GM-CSF or IL-2, costimulatory molecules such as B7-1, and allogeneic class I MHC molecules); this modification helps attract effector molecules and enhances systemic tumor targeting. Clinical trials with GM-CSF–modified tumor cells have produced encouraging preliminary results.

Allogeneic tumor cells (cells taken from other patients) have been used in patients with acute lymphocytic leukemia and acute myeloblastic leukemia. Remission is induced by intensive chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Then, irradiated allogeneic tumor cells that have been modified either genetically or chemically to increase their immunogenic potential are injected into the patient. Sometimes patients are also given bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine or other adjuvants (see Immunotherapy of Cancer : Nonspecific Immunotherapy) to enhance the immune response against the tumor. Prolonged remissions or improved reinduction rates have been reported in some series but not in most.

A novel approach to cancer treatment combining immunotherapy and conventional chemotherapy has shown some success (vs historic controls) in nonrandomized phase I and phase II clinical trials involving various cancers, types of vaccines, and chemotherapy.

Nonspecific Immunotherapy

Interferons (IFN-α, -β, -γ) are glycoproteins that have antitumor and antiviral activity. Depending on dose, interferons may either enhance or decrease cellular and humoral immune functions. Interferons also inhibit division and certain synthetic processes in a variety of cells. Clinical trials have indicated that interferons have antitumor activity in various cancers, including hairy cell leukemia, chronic myelocytic leukemia, AIDS-associated Kaposi’s sarcoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and ovarian carcinoma. However, interferons may have significant adverse effects, such as fever, malaise, leukopenia, alopecia, and myalgias.

Certain bacterial adjuvants (BCG and derivatives, killed suspensions of Corynebacterium parvum) have tumoricidal properties. They have been used with or without added tumor antigen to treat a variety of cancers, usually along with intensive chemotherapy or radiation therapy. For example, direct injection of BCG into cancerous tissues has resulted in regression of melanoma and prolongation of disease-free intervals in superficial bladder carcinomas and may help prolong drug-induced remission in acute myeloblastic leukemia, ovarian carcinoma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

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