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Cancer Vaccines: What Are They and How Do They Work?

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By Editor Last updated: May 25, 2020

Vaccines help in fighting off disease. Most people receive vaccinations routinely during childhood. The medicines in the vaccines train the body’s immune system to recognize germs like bacteria and viruses. But infections are not the only diseases vaccines can protect us against. Vaccines also help prevent and treat cancer. Let’s find out more about cancer vaccines.

What are cancer vaccines?

There are two types of cancer vaccines – vaccines for cancer prevention and vaccines for cancer treatment. Cancer prevention vaccines are given to healthy people to reduce the chances of certain cancers developing. The FDA has approved two cancer prevention vaccines in the U.S.:1,2

The HPV vaccine (Gardasil 9) protects against human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is known to cause certain types of cancer, such as vaginal, vulvar, cervical, and anal cancers.
The Hepatitis B vaccine protects against hepatitis B virus infection, which is known to cause liver cancer.

Cancer treatment vaccines are a type of immunotherapy. They are given to patients with a diagnosis of cancer. Cancer vaccines do not directly affect cancer cells. Rather, they boost the body’s natural immunity and ability to fight off cancer.1

Vaccines can help to destroy any cancer cells remaining in the body after treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Cancer treatment vaccines can also prevent the growth and spread of tumors. They may even prevent cancer from coming back.

How do cancer vaccines kill cancer?

Cells have substances called antigens on their surface. The immune system recognizes these antigens and destroys the cells that carry them. The immune system also develops memory to respond to these antigens in the future.

Certain cancer cells have specific antigens on their surface that are not present in healthy cells. Cancer treatment vaccines boost the immune system’s ability to recognize these antigens and destroy the cancer cells. Cancer vaccines contain cancer-specific antigens. When the antigens are introduced into the body through the vaccine, they stimulate the immune system to respond and kill the cancer cells.1

It is possible to customize a cancer treatment vaccine. Such a vaccine is made from the patient’s tumor sample. There are many cancer vaccines in clinical trials, including vaccines for bladder cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, brain tumors, kidney cancer, leukemia, lung cancer, melanoma, myeloma, prostate cancer, and pancreatic cancer.1

What are dendritic cancer vaccines?

Dendritic cells are a special type of immune cell in the body. They have a powerful ability to present antigens to T-lymphocytes.2 T-lymphocytes protect the body against infection and help fight cancer. Dendritic cells can boost the body’s T-cell response against a specific cancer antigen. Dendritic cells are isolated, loaded with the cancer antigen in the laboratory, and given as a dendritic cancer vaccine.2

The FDA has approved Provenge (sipuleucel-T), a personalized dendritic cancer vaccine, for advanced prostate cancer.3 In other countries, a dendritic cell-based vaccine called APCEDEN has been developed to treat lung, colorectal, ovarian, and prostate cancers.3,4 Several clinical trials are underway in the U.S. and worldwide for personalized DC-based vaccines for malignant melanoma, metastatic colorectal cancer, newly diagnosed and recurrent glioblastoma, and pancreatic cancer, among others.5


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