What Are Cancer Vaccines?   

What Are Cancer Vaccines?

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Heather L. Appelbaum, M.D.
Andre Henri Goy, M.D.

For more than a year, we all have been immersed in vaccines due to the pandemic. In the case of COVID-19, the vaccine is eliciting an immune response against the virus that helps protect us and can stop progression of the virus after we reach what is called herd immunity (i.e., enough people immunized to stop the spread of the virus and its mutations or changes).

Since English surgeon Edward Jenner discovered vaccination in 1796 and Louis Pasteur invented vaccines in 1880, vaccines have been one of the most successful advances in medicine with the eradication of many infectious diseases worldwide.

The advantage of engaging the immune response—particularly the T cells—is that it generates a long-lasting immune memory that can prevent infections but can also help fight cancer. Immunotherapy—particularly T cell therapy (such as CAR T cells) or checkpoint blockade (that unleash the dormant immune system)—are now transforming cancer care.

The development of cancer vaccines has seen a resurgence over the last decade, thanks to better understanding of the immune response, the development of better platforms and technologies to deliver these vaccines. “The goal of therapeutic cancer vaccines is to prevent cancer, induce tumor regression, eradicate minimal residual disease after initial therapy and establish lasting antitumor memory,” says Andre Henri Goy, M.D., chairman and director at the John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center.

Cancer vaccines come in two categories:

Prophylactic or Preventative Vaccines

These vaccines work by killing viruses that may lead to cancer.

“There is a vaccine against the human papillomavirus [HPV], also known as HPV, which is spread through sexual contact and has been known to cause cervical, anal, throat, vaginal, vulvar and penile cancers,” says Heather Appelbaum, M.D., pediatric and adolescent gynecologist.

Additionally, there is also a vaccine to combat hepatitis B, which can, in some cases, lead to liver cancer.

Therapeutic or Treatment Vaccines

Currently, three forms of cancers vaccines have been approved by the FDA:

  • In advanced refractory prostate cancer, a vaccine called Sipuleucel-T (where the patient’s own cells have been stimulated against a prostate cancer protein found in >95% prostate cancer cells and then reinfused to the patient) can be used as treatment.
  • In advanced melanoma (skin cancer), a vaccine called Talimogene laherparepvec (a modified attenuated virus is injected into skin lesions where it infects tumor cells and induces an immune response) can be used as treatment.
  • In early-stage bladder cancer, the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) given intravesically can induce long-lasting protection and prevent progression or recurrence of bladder cancer.

Improvement in vaccine design and delivery models, including mRNA vaccines (which allow expression of many tumor antigens in one “shot”), have led to many ongoing trials that will likely offer new options for cancer patients in the near future.

“The power of the immune system cannot be underestimated, and restoring or augmenting our immune response will be at the core of all cancer therapies,” says Dr. Goy. “This being said, the best way to improve cancer outcomes today is through regular screenings, as catching cancer early always translates to better outcomes!”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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