Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States and one of the most aggressive known malignancies. New and innovative advances in treatment are desperately needed. One promising area of investigational treatment for pancreatic cancer involves the use of immunotherapy. The development of immunotherapy for pancreatic cancer has been hampered by difficulty in generating tumor-reactive lymphocytes from resected specimens and by a lack of appropriate target antigens expressed on tumor cells. Innovative strategies have been developed with the use of peripheral blood lymphocytes that are genetically engineered to express T-cell receptors targeting common tumor antigens, including cancer-testis antigens, such as the MAGE-A3 antigen. Cancer-testis antigens pose excellent targets for immunotherapy because they are expressed in cancer and in the testis, an immune-privileged site, but have limited expression in normal tissue. An additional advantage in targeting cancer-testis antigens for immunotherapy is that their expression can be selectively up-regulated in tumor cells via epigenetic regulation with chromatin remodeling agents. Current interest in targeting cancer-testis antigens in pancreatic cancer is well-founded because cancer-testis antigens have been shown to be expressed in pancreatic cancer as potential targets for therapy. In our studies, we validated the expression pattern of cancer-testis antigens in resected specimens of pancreatic cancer and tested the hypothesis that treatment of pancreatic cancer cells with chromatin remodeling agents would render them more sensitive to antigen-specific T lymphocytes. We focused predominately on the MAGE-A3 antigen because it is highly expressed in pancreatic cancer, and several immunotherapeutic strategies are in clinical trials targeting this specific antigen. The results of these studies have important translational implications and provide the rationale for combined treatment with chromatin remodeling agents and immunotherapeutic approaches for pancreatic cancer.
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