Human leukocyte antigen (HLA) molecules are essential for anti-tumor immunity, as they display tumor-derived peptides to drive tumor eradication by cytotoxic T lymphocytes. HLA molecules are primarily studied as peptide-loaded complexes on cell membranes (mHLA) and much less attention is given to their secretion as soluble HLA–peptide complexes (sHLA) into bodily fluids. Yet sHLA levels are altered in various pathologies including cancer, and are thus of high interest as biomarkers. Disconcordance in results across studies, however, hampers interpretation and generalization of the relationship between sHLA levels and cancer presence, thereby impairing its use as a biomarker. Furthermore, the question remains to what extent sHLA complexes exert immunomodulatory effects and whether shifts in sHLA levels contribute to disease or are only a consequence of disease. sHLA complexes can also bear tumor-derived peptides and recent advancements in mass spectrometry now permit closer sHLA peptide cargo analysis. sHLA peptide cargo may represent a “liquid biopsy” that could facilitate the use of sHLA for cancer diagnosis and target identification for therapeutic vaccination. This review aims to outline the contradictory and unexplored aspects of sHLA and to provide direction on how the full potential of sHLA as a quantitative and qualitative biomarker can be exploited.

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Department of Gastroenterology & Hepatology