A variety of tumor antigens that may be recognized by T and B lymphocytes have been identified in human and animal cancers. In the experimental situation, as in MCA-induced mouse sarcomas, it is often possible to demonstrate that these antigens elicit adaptive immune responses and are the targets of such responses. Tumor antigens have also been identified in humans, but the methods used in this case are generally not suitable for proving that these antigens can elicit protective immunity to tumors. Nevertheless, it is important to identify tumor antigens in humans because they may be used as components of tumor vaccines, and antibodies and effector T cells generated against these antigens may be used for immunotherapy.
The earliest classification of tumor antigens was based on their patterns of expression. Antigens that are expressed on tumor cells but not on normal cells are called tumor-specific antigens; some of these antigens are unique to individual tumors, whereas others are shared among tumors of the same type. Tumor antigens that are also expressed on normal cells are called tumor-associated antigens; in most cases, these antigens are normal cellular constituents whose expression is aberrant or dysregulated in tumors. The modern classification of tumor antigens is based on the molecular structure and source of antigens expressed by tumor cells that stimulate T cell or antibody responses in their hosts.
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