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Current status of cancer immunotherapy
Kono K1,2

Author Names in full: Koji Kono

1 Department of Surgery, National University of Singapore, Singapore, 2 Cancer Science Institute of Singapore, National University of Singapore, Singapore


To prove clinical benefits of cancer vaccine is currently difficult, except for one phase III trial has documented improved overall survival with the vaccine, Sipuleucel‑T, although induction of anti-tumor immune responses through cancer vaccine is theoretically promising and would be straightforward. In contrast, immune checkpoint blockade with anti-CTLA4 mAb and anti-PD‑1 mAb has demonstrated clear evidence of objective responses including improved overall survival and tumor shrinkage, driving renewed enthusiasm for cancer immunotherapy in multi­ple cancer types. In addition, there is a promising novel cancer immunotherapy, CAR therapy—a personalized treatment that involves genetically modifying a patient’s T- cells to make them target tumor cells.  We are now facing new era of cancer immunotherapy.


cancer vaccine, immune checkpoints, monoclonal antibody


Recent approval of Sipuluecel-T, which is a cancer vaccine with an activated antigen presenting cells (APCs) and lymphocyte mixture for hormone refractory prostate cáncer, paved the way to antigen-specific cancer immunotherapy [1]. Moreover, immune checkpoint blockade with therapeutic mAbs such as anti-CTLA4 mAb and anti-PD1 mAb for melanoma implicate a new era of the immunotherapy in the anti-cancer strategy [2,3]. Due to recent advanced technologies in molecular and cellular immunology, it has been reported that several immunogenic tumor-antigens expressed by tumor cells are identified and the characterization of tumor-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) in cancer patients was successfully performed [4,5]. These observations have attracted the interest of researchers and clinicians in the use of vaccines as one of anti-tumor interventions. Moreover, modern engineering technologies enabled to generate mAbs specific for certain target molecules, and recent breakthrough results from mAbs therapy inhibiting immune checkpoints such a CTLA4 and PD-1 could pave the way to a new field of cancer immunotherapy. In this review, recent advances in cancer immunotherapy are discussed with particular focus on cancer vaccine and immune checkpoint blockade. 

Cancer vaccine

A number of investigations have generated in-depth insights into the molecular and cellular mechanisms relating to anti-cancer immune responses. Identification of immunogenic tumor-antigens and the characterization of tumor-specific CTLs in cancer patients[4,5] could attract an enormous interest in translational research, which leads to several clinical    trials  of   cancer  vaccine.   Recently, a    panel   of preparations for cancer vaccine has been tested for their ability to elicit tumor-specific immune responses and induce anti-tumor effects in vivo. There are a number of possibilities of cancer vaccine preparations[6-9];  (1) synthetic tumor-associate antigens (TAAs), in the form of either short peptides or full-length proteins, which are expected to bind MHC molecules on the surface of antigen-presenting cells (APCs) or relies on the uptake and processing by APCs; (2) whole tumor lysates, containing TAAs alone or complexed with chaperones; (3) TAA-encoding vectors, in the form of naked DNA or RNA; (4) DC-based vaccines, including DCs loaded with TAAs ex vivo as well as fusion proteins that allow for the selective delivery of TAAs to DCs in vivo.

Among them, only one cell-based vaccine, sipuleucel-T (Provenge®), has been clinically approved for the treatment of patients with metastatic hormone-refractory prostate cancer in 2010[1]. No other vaccines based on synthetic TAAs or DNA-based preparation are currently approved for clinical use for malignant tumors, with exceptions of Cervarix® and Gardasil®, the two multivalent vaccines that have been approved as prophylactic measures against HPV-infection-related cervical cáncer[10,11]. Thus, cancer vaccine has been struggling to show evidence in improvement of patient`s survival. There are several reasons to explain the difficulties in the development of effective cancer vaccines[12,13]; (1) poor antigenicity of tumor antigen; (2) heterogenic expression of tumor antigen; (2) the issues relating vaccine administration schedule and route as well as the presence and type of adjuvants and (3) immunosuppressive networks at both local and systemic levels.

Thus, cancer vaccine has been struggling to show evidence in clinical benefits such as improvement of survival or quality of life. Several clinical trials with different antigens as well as different preparations are on-going (Table 1).  

Table 1. Recent clinical trials of cancer vaccine with purified TAA s or peptides

Indications       Phase Antigen preparation Antigens   
Hematological malignancy (AML, CML etc) I Fusion proteins NY-ESO-1
Hematological malignancy (AML, CML etc)  I/II Fusion proteins     MAGEA10, WT1
Breast        II Peptides   HER2
CIN   I Fusion proteins   E7
GBM        I/II
HSP-TAA complexes
Multiple                                Multiple
Melanoma  I
Full length TAAs, Peptides
HSP-TAA complexes
MPM II Peptides  WT1
Multiple Myeloma   I Peptides  Multiple
Prostate cancer   I/II Peptides  TERT

Abbreviations: AML, acute myeloid leukemia; CIN, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia; CML, chronic myeloid leukemia; GBM, glioblastoma multiforme; HSP, heat-shock protein; MPM, malignant pleural mesothelioma; NSCLC, non-small cell lung carcinoma; TAA , tumor-associated antigen.

Multi-peptide vaccine

Several phase II and III clinical trials have recently demonstrated the promising and the therapeutic potentials of cancer vaccination[1,14-17]. However, most of them are performed with single antigen-based vaccination with several modifications and the clinical benefit seems to be very limited. In order to further improve the clinical responses of cancer vaccination treatment, it is necessary to consider the application of a combination of multiple vaccines derived from the different target molecules, because it may overcome the issue of heterogeneity of tumor cells and also avoid the escape of tumor cells from peptide-specific immune response by loss of antigen expression [18,19].  In general, the preferable characteristic of the target molecules for development of cancer vaccines are: (1) high immunogenicity, (2) very common expression in cancer cells, (3) specific expression in cancer cells and (4) essential molecules for cell survival (to avoid loss of expression).

We have been shown that three novel HLA-A24-restricted immunodominant peptides, which are derived from three different Cancer-Testis antigens, TTK protein kinase (TTK), lymphocyte antigen 6 complex locus K (LY6K), and insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-II mRNA binding protein 3 (IMP-3), are promising targets for cáncer vaccination against esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC). [15, 20, 21]. This is due  to  the findings;  limited  expression  in  tumor   tissue, highly frequent expression (>95%) of ESCC; homogenous expression within ESCC; and essential molecules for survival and proliferation. Moreover, it has shown that these peptides could stimulate CTL that recognized and killed ESCC cells endogenously expressing these antigens in vitro. Therefore, we had performed a phase I clinical cancer vaccination trials with a combination of multiple peptides that were derived from TTK, LY6K, and IMP3 for the HLA-A*2402 (+) patients with advanced ESCC, and the evidence in the phase I trial supported a recommendation moving forward to the phase II trial[21]. In the following phase II trial, 60 ESCC patients who failed to standard therapy were enrolled[15]. All enrolled patients had received the vaccination without knowing HLA-A type, and the HLA type were key-opened at analysis point and then, the endpoints were evaluated between HLA-A*2402 positive (24(+)) and HLA-A*2402 negative (24(-)) group in sub-group analysis. As a result,the OS in the 24 (+) group (n=35) tended to be better than that in the 24(-) group (n=25, MST 4.6 vs. 2.6 months, respectively, p = 0.121). The PFS in the 24(+) group was significantly better than that in the 24(-) group (p = 0.032). The patients having URLC10-, TTK-, and KOC1-specific CTL responses revealed the better OS in comparison to those not having CTL responses, respectively. We reported that the phase II clinical trial of cancer vaccination demonstrated the immune-response induced by the vaccination could induce the better prognosis in advanced ESCC. Based on our phase I and II clinical   trials,  a   pharmaceutical   company   in   Japan  is preparing phase III RCT trial of cancer vaccine against ESCC. 

Another promising phase I/II trial of cancer vaccine with multiple antigenic peptides, which consist of HLA class I and II-binding peptides are reported[22]. A total of 96 renal cell cancer patients were treated with multi-peptide vaccine in combination with cyclophosphamide. The trial showed the combination of multi-peptide vaccine with cyclophosphamide could provide clinical survival benefits and better induction rates of antigen-specific T-cell responses. Therefore, a randomized phase III trial is currently ongoing in Germany.   

MAGE‑A3 vaccine

It is generally believed that MAGRIT trial (the phase III trial of cancer vaccine with MAGE-A3 against non-small cell lung cancer) is a promising clinical trial to show the clinical benefit of cancer vaccine. The reasons are: (1) the trial is performed as an adjuvant setting for patients with curatively resected tumors, (2) MAGE‑A3 is a well- characterized tumor antigen and (3) the preceding phase II trial was shown to have a promising result. MAGE-A3 is a well-characterized cancer testis-antigen[23] that is selectively expressed on tumor cells, but not expressed in normal cells except for the testes, where MHC molecules are not expressed. Immunogenicity of MAGE-A3 was extensively evaluated at both antigenic peptide levels and cellular levels in vivo as well as in vitro. In lung cancer, MAGE‑A3 expression increases with tumor stage; the antigen is expressed in approximately 35% of lung tumors[24]. The pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has been developing a cancer vaccine strategy using MAGE-A3 protein with several combinations of adjuvants, which can stimulate DCs and enhances protein antigen uptake by DCs. In the phase II study of the MAGE‑A3 vaccine, 182 patients with curatively resected, MAGE‑A3-positive NSCLC tumors (stages IB and II) were randomly assigned to receive MAGE‑A3 vaccine (n = 122) or placebo (n = 60) at 2:1 ratio. Although the primary end point of the trial, disease-free survival, was not significantly different between the two groups (HR 0.74, 95% CI 0.44–1.2, P = 0.107), there was a promising tendency of better disease-free survival in the vaccine group (data not published and available in the meeting proceeding). Of interest is, a tumor gene-expression profile was investigated in this phase II clinical trial, and revealed a 43% relative risk reduction for recurrence in the vaccine treated group in patients with a favorable gene-signature profile (HR 0.57, 95% CI 0.25–1.34, P = 0.99). These data supported the design and initiation of a large phase III trial, called MAGRIT.

In the MAGRIT trial, 2,270 patients with curatively resected tumors expressing MAGE‑A3 were randomly assigned to receive either vaccine or placebo setting as same as the previous phase II trial, but with some modification of adjuvant. Notably, this trial is the largest interventional study of cancer vaccine, attracting a huge interest in immunotherapy all over the world. However, the preliminary results from the MAGRIT trial has just been released (March 2014), where cancer vaccine did not significantly extend the disease-free survival compared to the placebo group (only available in the press release). More detailed analysis relating to the favourable gene-signature profile is awaited.

Immune checkpoint blockade

Immune checkpoint

Genetic and epigenetic alterations  that  are  typica  features  ofcancers provide a diverse set of antigens, by which the anti-tumor immunity is induced and activated. In an interaction between T-cells and tumor, the grade and quality of the T-cell-responses, which is initiated through antigen recogni­tion by the T-cell receptor (TCR), is regulated by a bal­ance between activating and inhibitory signals, where the inhibitory signals are currently called as immune checkpoints[25-27]. Under normal conditions, immune checkpoints play a crucial role for the prevention of autoimmunity and also to protect tissues from damage when the immune system is responding to pathogenic infection. It is generally accepted that the up-regulation of immune-checkpoint proteins can be induced by tumors and lead to a prominent immune evasion mecha­nism. The two immune checkpoint receptors that have been actively studied in the context of clinical cancer immunotherapy, cytotoxic T‑lymphocyte-associated antigen 4 (CTLA4) and programmed cell death protein 1 (PD1) — which are both inhibi­tory receptors (Figure 1).

CTLA4 is expressed exclusively on T-cells where it fundamentally regulates the degree of the early stages of T-cell activation. In principal, CTLA4 counteracts and inhibits the activity of the T-cell co-stimulatory receptor, CD28 and leads to inhibitory signals[28,29]. Once antigen recognition occurs through TCR, CD28 signaling strongly enhances TCR signal­ing and leads to activating T-cells, while CTLA4 inhibits the activity of CD28. CD28 and CTLA4 share identi­cal ligands: CD80 (also known as B7.1) and CD86 (also known as B7.2)[28,29].

Figure 1:mmune checkpoint blockade with mAbs

PD-L1 is an inhibitory B7 family member broadly distributed in various tissues and cell types, and is often expressed after exposure to inflammatory cytokines, especially IFN-g [25,30]. PD-L1 interacts with PD-1 and can inhibit T-cell activation and CTL-mediated lysis[3,31]. Marked expression of PD-L1 has been reported in various types of human cáncer[26,32]. It has been reported that the inhibition of PD1-PD-L1 interaction with therapeutic mAbs induced significant and durable responses in several types of refractory tumor in clinical trials[2,33,34]. Therefore, PD-L1 expression appears to be one of the key mechanisms for tumors to avoid the host’s immune response.

Table 2  Agents targeting immune-checkpoint

Target Biological function Antibody (fusion protein) Phase Cancer type
CTLA4 Inhibitory receptor Ipilimumab FDA approved
Phase II and III

multiple cancers

PD1 Inhibitory receptor MDX‑1106
Phase I/II
Phase I
Phase I
Phase I
melanoma, renal, lung
multiple cancers
multiple cancers
multiple cancers     
PDL1 Ligand for PD1 MDX‑1105 Phase I multiple cancers
LAG3 Inhibitory receptor IMP321 Phase II breast cancer
B7‑H3 Inhibitory ligand MGA271 Phase I multiple cancers
B7‑H4 Inhibitory ligand     Preclinical
TIM3 Inhibitory receptor     Preclinical

CTLA4, cytotoxic T‑lymphocyte-associated antigen 4; FDA, US Food and Drug Administration; LAG3, lymphocyte activation gene 3; PD1, programmed cell death protein 1; PDL, PD1 ligand; TIM3, T-cell membrane protein 3.

Immune checkpoint blockade with mAbs

In 2010, it was reported that the anti-CTLA4 mAb therapy had extended life in advanced melanoma in a randomized trial and  the  U.S.   FDA   approved   the   anti–CTLA4  mAb   for metastatic melanoma[35]. In 2012, yet another breakthrough result of immune checkpoint blockade had come up, in which anti–PD-1 mAb therapy resulted in tumor-shrinkage in about half or more in 31% of those with melanoma, 29% with kidney cancer, and 17% with lung cáncer[31,33]. Interestingly, it was reported that combination of anti–CTLA4 mAb with anti–PD-1 mAb led to “deep and rapid tumor regression” in almost a third of melanoma patients[36]. With both anti–CTLA4 and anti–PD-1 mAbs, some patients kept responding even after the treatment had been discontinued, suggesting their immune memory had been established. Some, particularly those with anti–CTLA4 mAb treatment, developed side- effects such as inflammation of the colon or of the pituitary gland.

As described above, these immune checkpoints are only part of the receptors and ligands to inhibit specific types of immune responses at various levels. The next steps for developing immune checkpoint blockade are mainly two challenges as follows. First is the identification of potential biomarkers that can determine which immune checkpoint pathway or pathways dominate in a particu­lar tumor — this will be crucial to guide the choice of inhibitor. For example, in the case of anit-PD1 mAb therapy, the expression of PD-L1 on tumor cells was reported to be the most obvious potential determinants of responsiveness to anti-PD-1 mAb.

The second challenge is the clinical development of combinatorial approaches. Animal and pre-clinical data suggested that there was a strong synergy between tumor vaccines and inhi­bition of immune checkpoints[37]. Anti-CTLA4 and anti-PD-1 mAbs strongly enhances the ampli­tude of vaccine-induced anti-tumor responses in many poorly immunogenic tumor models[37,38]. However, there was no synergistic effect between cancer vaccine and anti-CTLA4 mAb in a pivotal RCT, in which combination of gp100-peptide vaccine with anti-CTLA4 mAb  did   not   show   any survival benefits compared to the group with anti-CTLA4 mAb alone[35].

CAR therapy

Currently, there is another promising area of immunotherapy. In 2010, Rosenberg et al. published encouraging results from so-called chimeric antigen receptor therapy, or CAR therapy—a personalized treatment that involves genetically modifying a patient’s T-cells to make them target tumor cells[39,40]. Moreover, it has been reported that there was amazing responses to CAR therapy: patients with advanced stages of leukemia that melted away, in which the T-cell therapy put 45 of 75 adults and children with leukemia into complete remission, although some later relapsed. CAR therapy is now the focus of numerous clinical trials[41]. Although engineered T-cells are still experimental, researchers are extensively working on developing the CAR therapy with great hope.

Conclusion and future prospective

To prove clinical benefits of cancer vaccine is currently difficult, except for one phase III trial has documented improved overall survival with the vaccine, Sipuleucel‑T, although induction of anti-tumor immune responses through cancer vaccine is theoretically promising and would be straightforward. In contrast, immune checkpoint blockade with anti-CTLA4 mAb and anti-PD‑1 mAb has demonstrated clear evidence of objective responses, driving renewed enthusiasm for cancer immunotherapy in multi­ple cancer types. In addition, there is a promising novel cancer immunotherapy, CAR therapy—a personalized treatment that involves genetically modifying a patient’s T-cells to make them target tumor cells.  We are now facing new era of cancer immunotherapy.

Potential Conflicts of Interests:

The author has no conflicting financial interest.

Abbreviations used in the article:



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Corresponding Author:

Koji Kono, PhD, MD
Department of Surgery, National University of Singapore, Level 8, NUHS Tower Block, 1E Kent Ridge Road, 119228 Singapore.Office phone +65 6772 3196    Fax +65 6777 8427; Email;


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