Immunotherapy is often perceived as a relatively recent advance when in reality it is an ancient science. From ancient Egypt, some 3000 years ago, to the early 19th century there have been multiple reports of tumours disappearing spontaneously or after an infection with a high fever. The similarity between cancer and inflammation were described for the first time by the Greek physician Galen, who observed that cancer might evolve from inflammatory lesions. The most significant advances came from William B. Coley who is known as the Father of Immunotherapy. He observed a number of cases in which potentially incurable cancer patients went into spontaneous remission after developing an acute bacterial infection. Despite the success, the lack of mechanism of action for Coley’s methods as well as the risk of infecting cancer patients caused oncologists to prefer surgery and radiotherapy and Coley’s legacy was widely forgotten and dismissed for some decades.
Interest in the immune system came up again after 1945, with the discovery of interferon and the very first cancer vaccine. The existence of T cells and their very crucial role in immunity was discovered in the late 1960s by Jacques Miller, followed by the discovery of Dendritic cells by Ralph Steinman in 1973, and natural killer (NK) cells in 1975 by Klein, which paved the way forward. Finally in the 1980s, when the vaccine against hepatitis B was discovered, the field of immunotherapy emerged and optimism resurfaced that immunotherapy might be used to treat many diseases including cancer and propelled research into where we are at the moment.
Around 50 years ago, professor Lloyd J Old, pioneer of cancer immuno-oncology correctly predicted that in the future immunotherapy would be the 4th kind of cancer therapy., and immunotherapy has rightly claimed as the legitimate 4th pillar of cancer treatment after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Numerous contributions have been made in this field, and this field is growing at a rapid pace as it shows promising responses in a large number of patients, worldwide.