The immune system can participate in the elimination of tumor cells. This is possible because tumors bear specific markers on their surface, known as tumor antigens. Scientists focus on tumor antigenic peptides recognized by a specific subset of white blood cells called T lymphocytes or T cells, which are able to kill tumor cells bearing these tumor antigens. However, because spontaneous T cell responses to tumors are rarely efficient at eliminating tumors, researchers and clinicians are trying to develop immunotherapies, such as anti-tumor vaccines and adoptive T cell transfer, which aim at helping the immune system of cancer patients to destroy their tumors. Better understanding of the nature and the expression profile of these targeted antigens is one key for the success of such therapies.
Since the discovery in 1991 of the first human T cell defined-tumor antigen, a growing number of tumor antigens are described at a regular pace, with dozens of them reported in the literature every year. In 2001, Drs. Pierre van der Bruggen, Vincent Stroobant, Nathalie Vigneron, and Benoit Van Den Eynde, scientists at the Brussels branch of Ludwig Cancer Research, started compiling what they thought were the most relevant human tumor antigens, and created a database. They selected a classification of antigenic peptides based on their tumor specificity because they are the most critical factor in determining their usefulness and, most importantly, the safety of their clinical use. Today, the database now comprises more than 450 tumor antigenic peptides as well as publications describing a host of potential antigenic targets.
As part of the Cancer Research Institute’s former open access journal, Cancer Immunity, the Peptide Database became an important tool for its readers. “The database is primarily designed to provide the scientific community with an open view of the nature and diversity of the tumor antigens available to date for cancer immunotherapy,” says van der Bruggen. Because the authors wanted the database to be useful to clinicians, they included only the peptides that were fully validated, i.e., whose characterization was comprehensive and fully demonstrated the existence, nature, immunogenicity and, most importantly, the natural presentation of these antigenic peptides by tumor cells. Those candidate peptides whose comprehensive characterization was not reported were listed in an additional category of “potential peptides,” awaiting further characterization.
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