As immunotherapies continue to emerge as a standard component of treatment for a variety of cancers, the imperative for testing these in combination with other standard cancer therapies grows. Radiation therapy may be a particularly well-suited partner for many immunotherapies. By modulating immune tolerance and functional immunogenicity at a targeted tumor site, radiation therapy may serve as a method of in situ tumor vaccination. In situ tumor vaccination is a therapeutic strategy that seeks to convert a patient's own tumor into a nidus for enhanced presentation of tumor-specific antigens in a way that will stimulate and diversify an antitumor T cell response. The mechanisms whereby radiation may impact immunotherapy are diverse and include its capacity to simultaneously elicit local inflammation, temporary local depletion of suppressive lymphocyte lineages, enhanced tumor cell susceptibility to immune response, and immunogenic tumor cell death. Emerging data suggest that each of these mechanisms may display a distinct dose–response profile, making it challenging to maximize each of these effects using external beam radiation. Conversely, the highly heterogenous and conformal dose distribution achieved with brachytherapy may be optimal for enhancing the immunogenic capacity of radiation at a tumor site while minimizing off-target antagonistic effects on peripheral immune cells. Here, we review the immunogenic effects of radiation, summarize the clinical rationale and data supporting the use of radiation together with immunotherapies, and discuss the rationale and urgent need for further preclinical and clinical investigation specifically of brachytherapy in combination with immunotherapies. Harnessing these immunomodulatory effects of brachytherapy may offer solutions to overcome obstacles to the efficacy of immunotherapies in immunologically “cold” tumors while potentiating greater response in the context of immunologically “hot” tumors.
- Checkpoint blockade
- In situ vaccine