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J Immunother. 2005 Jan-Feb;28(1):1-9.

Addicted to death: invasive cancer and the immune response to unscheduled cell death.

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  • 1University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Institute, Room 411, 300 Technology Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15219, USA.


The development of an invasive cancer involves a progressive switch from predominantly apoptotic (scheduled) to necrotic (unscheduled) tumor cell death. This switch is associated with chronic and increasing release of intracellular factors that in turn promote reactive angiogenesis and stromal proliferation and mediates the disordered tumor microenvironment associated with local immune suppression. The authors review the relevant immunobiology of these factors, including the nuclear protein HMGB1; the products of purine metabolism (uric acid, ATP, and adenosine); the S100 family members; and the heat shock proteins, which we believe drive futile cycles of cell death followed by reparative cell growth. The authors also present a novel and provocative hypothesis that suggests that most of the derangements that we associate with progression of cancer and the associated immunologic consequences can indeed be ascribed to the consequences of disordered tumor cell death rather than cell growth. Thus the fundamental defect in invasive human cancers, in the authors' view, is not one of cell growth but rather one of disordered cell death, resulting in turn in a tumor microenvironment that encourages tumor growth, progression, and local immunosuppression, a condition the authors have termed "addicted to death." This new understanding could inform and drive the development of more effective biologic therapies for patients with cancer.

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