A recently published paper showed that mice with colon cancer can be “vaccinated” with human embryonic stem cells and have a significant immune response against the cancer (Li et al., 2009). This study relates to a big hurdle that needs to be overcome in order to better fight cancer: immune tolerance. The immune system usually fails to detect and attack cancerous tumors, and consequently many cancer treatments are currently being developed that stimulate the immune system to fight back (e.g. the growing field of cancer vaccines).
Interestingly, this state of immune tolerance is similar to what happens during pregnancy, and, more specifically, it’s been found that the body’s response to a tumor is very similar to its response to embryonic tissues. While much recent research has not been published in this area, there is actually a long history of studies that show: (1) there is a significant number of antigens shared between tumors and embryonic tissues (called “oncofetal antigens”) and, consequently, antibodies made against tumors can also recognize embryonic tissues, and vice versa; (2) pregnancy confers some immunity against cancer (accompanied by antibody production against oncofetal antigens), not only against its occurrence but also against its growth; (3) similar to pregnancy, an immune response against cancer can be generated by vaccinating animals with embryonic tissues. These studies and the recent re-visitation will be explored below (for a more detailed review, see Brewer et al., 2009).
The first published suggestion that tumors may have an embryonic nature came in the early 1800s (Muller, 1838). Tumors were suspected to be tissues that had been triggered to become embryonic-like again, and it is now generally accepted that tumors are indeed more “embryonic” than the tissues they are derived from, due to the re-expression of embryonic-related genes. By the late 1800s, researchers understood cancer enough to realize that they must better understand normal development in order to better combat cancerous tumors and their embryonic-like cells (Brewer et al., 2009). In the 1880s, these studies shifted focus; the field of immunology was born (from research conducted by Louis Pasteur, at the University of Strasbourg, and Robert Koch, as a medical officer in Poland) and many researchers focused on creating vaccines to cure diseases. Cancer was no exception.