Tumor antigen

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Tumor antigen is an antigenic substance produced in tumor cells, i.e., it triggers an immune response in the host. Tumor antigens are useful tumor markers in identifying tumor cells with diagnostic tests and are potential candidates for use in cancer therapy. The field of cancer immunology studies such topics.

Mechanism of tumor antigenesis[edit]

Normal proteins in the body are not antigenic because of self-tolerance, a process in which self-reacting cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) and autoantibody-producing B lymphocytes are culled "centrally" in primary lymphatic tissue (BM) and "peripherally" in secondary lymphatic tissue (mostly thymus for T-cells and spleen/lymph nodes for B cells). Thus any protein that is not exposed to the immune system triggers an immune response. This may include normal proteins that are well sequestered from the immune system, proteins that are normally produced in extremely small quantities, proteins that are normally produced only in certain stages of development, or proteins whose structure is modified due to mutation.

Classification of tumor antigens[edit]

Initially tumor antigens were broadly classified into two categories based on their pattern of expression: Tumor-Specific Antigens (TSA), which are present only on tumor cells and not on any other cell and Tumor-Associated Antigens (TAA), which are present on some tumor cells and also some normal cells.

This classification, however,is imperfect because many antigens thought to be tumor-specific turned out to be expressed on some normal cells as well. The modern classification of tumor antigens is based on their molecular structure and source.

Accordingly they can be classified as;[citation needed]

  • Products of Mutated Oncogenes and Tumor Suppressor Genes
  • Products of Other Mutated Genes
    • Overexpressed or Aberrantly Expressed Cellular Proteins
    • Tumor Antigens Produced by Oncogenic Viruses
    • Oncofetal Antigens
    • Altered Cell Surface Glycolipids and Glycoproteins
    • Cell Type-Specific Differentiation Antigens


Any protein produced in a tumor cell that has an abnormal structure due to mutation can act as a tumor antigen. Such abnormal proteins are produced due to mutation of the concerned gene. Mutation of protooncogenes and tumor suppressors which lead to abnormal protein production are the cause of the tumor and thus such abnormal proteins are called tumor-specific antigens. Examples of tumor-specific antigens include the abnormal products of ras and p53 genes. In contrast, mutation of other genes unrelated to the tumor formation may lead to synthesis of abnormal proteins which are called tumor-associated antigens.

Proteins that are normally produced in very low quantities but whose production is dramatically increased in tumor cells, trigger an immune response. An example of such a protein is the enzyme tyrosinase, which is required for melanin production. Normally tyrosinase is produced in minute quantities but its levels are very much elevated in melanoma cells.

Oncofetal antigens are another important class of tumor antigens. Examples are alphafetoprotein (AFP) and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA). These proteins are normally produced in the early stages of embryonic development and disappear by the time the immune system is fully developed. Thus self-tolerance does not develop against these antigens.

Abnormal proteins are also produced by cells infected with oncoviruses, e.g. EBV and HPV. Cells infected by these viruses contain latent viral DNA which is transcribed and the resulting protein produces an immune response.

In addition to proteins, other substances like cell surface glycolipids and glycoproteins may also have an abnormal structure in tumor cells and could thus be targets of the immune system.

Importance of tumor antigens[edit]

Tumor antigens, because of their relative abundance in tumor cells are useful in identifying specific tumor cells. Certain tumors have certain tumor antigens in abundance.

Tumor antigen Tumor in which it is found Remarks
Alphafetoprotein (AFP) Germ cell tumors

Hepatocellular carcinoma

Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) bowel cancers Occasional lung or breast cancer
CA-125 Ovarian cancer
MUC-1 breast cancer
Epithelial tumor antigen (ETA) Breast cancer
Tyrosinase Malignant melanoma normally present in minute quantities; greatly elevated levels in melanoma
Melanoma-associated antigen (MAGE) malignant melanoma Also normally present in the testis
abnormal products of ras, p53 Various tumors

Certain tumor antigens are thus used as tumor markers. More importantly, tumor antigens can be used in cancer therapy as tumor antigen vaccines.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ M Hareuveni, C Gautier, M Kieny, D Wreschner, P Chambon and R Lathe; Vaccination Against Tumor Cells Expressing Breast Cancer Epithelial Tumor Antigen; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol 87, 9498-9502, 1990.
  • Kumar, Abbas, Fausto; Robbins and Cotran: Pathologic Basis of Disease; Elsevier, 7th ed.
  • Coulie PG, Hanagiri T, Takanoyama M: From Tumor Antigens to Immunotherapy. Int J Clin Oncol 6:163, 2001.

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