Over a hundred years ago William B Coley, the “Father of Immunotherapy”, discovered that injection of bacteria or bacterial toxins into tumors could cause those tumors to shrink. The introduction of bacteria had the side-effect of stimulating the immune system to attack the tumor. The field of cancer immunotherapy research—which today includes many different approaches for generating anti-tumor immune responses—originated with these early experiments.
Use of bacteria is one way to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells, others include use of cytokines, immune checkpoint blockades and vaccines. This Nature animation provides a simple overview of these methods.
The concept of cell death as a normal cell fate was articulated only three years after Schleiden and Schwann introduced the Cell Theory when, in 1874, Vogt described natural cell death as an integral part of toad development (as cited in Cotter and Curtin, 2003). Since these early observations, natural cell death has been described “anew” several times. In 1885 Flemming provided the first morphological description of a natural cell death process, which we now label “apoptosis”, a term coined by Kerr and colleagues to describe the unique morphology associated with a cell death that differs from necrosis (as cited in Kerr et al. 1972).
In the 1970s and 1980s, studies revealed that apoptosis not only had specific morphological characteristics but that it was also a tightly regulated process with specific biochemical characteristics. Studies of cell lineage in the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, showed that apoptosis was a normal feature of the nematode’s invariant developmental program (Hengartner, 1997). At the biochemical level, Wyllie showed that DNA degradation by a specific endonuclease during apoptosis resulted in a DNA ladder composed of mono- and oligonucleosomal-sized fragments (Wyllie, 1980).
These and many other studies have proven that apoptosis is a critical component of development, and when it doesn’t happen appropriately, it can be pathological, leading to cancers or other diseases. Therefore, understanding how and when apoptosis occurs and the many signals that can trigger this process is a focus of many laboratory experiments.