, Volume 15, Issue 9, pp 1050–1071 | Cite as

Photodynamic therapy: illuminating the road from cell death towards anti-tumour immunity

  • Abhishek D. Garg
  • Dominika Nowis
  • Jakub Golab
  • Patrizia Agostinis
Clearance of dead cells: mechanisms, immune responses and implication in the development of diseases


Photodynamic therapy (PDT) utilizes the destructive power of reactive oxygen species generated via visible light irradiation of a photosensitive dye accumulated in the cancerous tissue/cells, to bring about their obliteration. PDT activates multiple signalling pathways in cancer cells, which could give rise to all three cell death modalities (at least in vitro). Simultaneously, PDT is capable of eliciting various effects in the tumour microenvironment thereby affecting the tumour-associated/-infiltrating immune cells and by extension, leading to infiltration of various immune cells (e.g. neutrophils) into the treated site. PDT is also associated to the activation of different immune phenomena, e.g. acute-phase response, complement cascade and production of cytokines/chemokines. It has also come to light that, PDT is capable of activating ‘anti-tumour adaptive immunity’ in both pre-clinical as well as clinical settings. Although the ability of PDT to induce ‘anti-cancer vaccine effect’ is still debatable, yet it has been shown to be capable of inducing exposure/release of certain damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) like HSP70. Therefore, it seems that PDT is unique among other approved therapeutic procedures in generating a microenvironment suitable for development of systemic anti-tumour immunity. Apart from this, recent times have seen the emergence of certain promising modalities based on PDT like-photoimmunotherapy and PDT-based cancer vaccines. This review mainly discusses the effects exerted by PDT on cancer cells, immune cells as well as tumour microenvironment in terms of anti-tumour immunity. The ability of PDT to expose/release DAMPs and the future perspectives of this paradigm have also been discussed.


Photodynamic therapy DAMPs Immunology Antitumour immunity Neutrophils Immunotherapy 



Apoptosis-inducing factor


Amino levulinic acid


Antigen-presenting cells


Acute-phase response


Adenosine triphosphate


Cluster of differentiation


Damage-associated molecular patterns


Dendritic cell


Endoplasmic reticulum


Glucose-regulated protein


Hypoxia-inducible factor


High-mobility group box-1


Heat shock protein






Mitogen-activated protein kinase


Major histocompatibility complex


Mitochondrial membrane permeabilization

NK cells

Natural killer cells


Nitric oxide


Photodynamic therapy


Receptor interacting protein 1


Reactive oxygen species


Tumour-associated antigen(s)


Transforming growth factor


Toll-like receptor(s)


Tumour necrosis factor



P.A. and A.D.G. are supported by the grants from the K.U.Leuven (OT49/06) and F.W.O. Flanderen (G.0661.09). This paper presents research results of the IAP6/18, funded by the Interuniversity Attraction Poles Programme, initiated by the Belgian State, Science Policy Office. J.G. and D.N. are supported by grants N40112331/2736 and R0504303 from Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland; the European Union within European Regional Development Fund through Innovative Economy grant POIG.01.01.02-00-008/08 and by the Foundation for Polish Science Team Programme co-financed by the EU European Regional Development Fund. J.G. is a recipient of the Mistrz Award from the Foundation for Polish Science. Lastly, all figures were produced using Servier Medical Art ( for which the authors would like to acknowledge Servier.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Molecular Cell Biology, Faculty of MedicineCatholic University of LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  2. 2.Department of Immunology, Center of Biostructure ResearchMedical University of WarsawWarsawPoland
  3. 3.Institute of Physical ChemistryPolish Academy of SciencesWarsawPoland

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