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December 2015

Role of Local Radiation Therapy in Cancer Immunotherapy

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Pathology, New York University School of Medicine, New York
  • 2Department of Radiation Oncology, New York University School of Medicine, New York
JAMA Oncol. 2015;1(9):1325-1332. 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.