Incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma has been rising in the last two decades because of the wide exposure to hepatitis C virus during 1960s and 1970s. Improvement in treatment has been achieved by local ablative therapies, however because of early recurrence and lack of effective chemotherapies, alternative treatments based on stimulation of the anti-tumour immune response could represent new strategies to control hepatocellular carcinoma spread and recurrence. Proof of principle of an effective immunotherapy has been achieved for other solid tumours such as melanoma and several results could be transferred to the immunotherapy of hepatocellular carcinoma. Specific tumour antigens have been identified in hepatocellular carcinoma, such as cancer testis antigens expressed in a large part of hepatocellular carcinomas and alpha-fetoprotein that has been already employed in clinical trials demonstrating immunogenicity without however significant clinical efficacy. Better results have been achieved by non-antigen-specific immunotherapies that demonstrated improvement in recurrence and recurrence-free survival in patients undergoing surgical resection for hepatocellular carcinoma. Passive immunotherapy and targeted therapies blocking tumour cell receptors or enzymatic pathways are already in the clinic for other malignancies and the near future will see these new treatments applied to hepatocellular carcinoma patients along with the development of efficacious active immunotherapies aimed at reducing disease recurrence and improving survival.
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