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Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Sep;1176:154-69. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04568.x.

Antitumor immunity and cancer stem cells.

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Transplantation Research Center, Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.


Self-renewing cancer stem cells (CSC) capable of spawning more differentiated tumor cell progeny are required for tumorigenesis and neoplastic progression of leukemias and several solid cancers. The mechanisms by which CSC cause tumor initiation and growth are currently unknown. Recent findings that suggest a negative correlation between degrees of host immunocompetence and rates of cancer development raise the possibility that only a restricted minority of malignant cells, namely CSC, may possess the phenotypic and functional characteristics to evade host antitumor immunity. In human malignant melanoma, a highly immunogenic cancer, we recently identified malignant melanoma initiating cells (MMIC), a novel type of CSC, based on selective expression of the chemoresistance mediator ABCB5. Here we present evidence of a relative immune privilege of ABCB5(+) MMIC, suggesting refractoriness to current immunotherapeutic treatment strategies. We discuss our findings in the context of established immunomodulatory functions of physiologic stem cells and in relation to mechanisms responsible for the downregulation of immune responses against tumors. We propose that the MMIC subset might be responsible for melanoma immune evasion and that immunomodulation might represent one mechanism by which CSC advance tumorigenic growth and resistance to immunotherapy. Accordingly, the possibility of an MMIC-driven tumor escape from immune-mediated rejection has important implications for current melanoma immunotherapy.

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