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Most of us know about vaccines given to healthy people to help prevent infections, such as measles and chicken pox. These vaccines use weakened or killed germs like viruses or bacteria to start an immune response in the body. Getting the immune system ready to defend against these germs helps keep people from getting infections.
Most vaccines used to treat cancer work the same way, but they make the person’s immune system attack cancer cells. The goal is to help treat cancer or to help keep it from coming back after other treatments. But there are also some vaccines that may actually help prevent certain cancers.
Some cancers are caused by viruses. Vaccines that help protect against infections with these viruses might also help prevent some of these cancers.
These are traditional preventive vaccines that target the viruses that can cause certain cancers. They may help protect against some cancers, but they don’t target cancer cells directly because cancer cells have not yet been formed or found.
These types of vaccines are only useful for cancers known to be caused by infections. But most cancers, including colorectal, lung, prostate, and breast cancers, are not thought to be caused by infections.
Cancer treatment vaccines are different from the vaccines that work against viruses. These vaccines try to get the immune system to mount an attack against cancer cells in the body. Instead of preventing disease, they are meant to get the immune system to attack a disease that already exists.
Some cancer treatment vaccines are made up of cancer cells, parts of cells, or pure antigens (certain proteins on the cancer cells). Sometimes a patient’s own immune cells are removed and exposed to these substances in the lab to create the vaccine. Once the vaccine is ready, it’s injected into the body to increase the immune response against cancer cells.
Vaccines are often combined with other substances or cells called adjuvants that help boost the immune response even further.
Cancer vaccines cause the immune system to attack cells with one or more specific antigens. Because the immune system has special cells for memory, it’s hoped that the vaccine might continue to work long after it’s given.
Sipuleucel-T (Provenge):This drug is used to treat advanced prostate cancer that is no longer being helped by hormone therapy. Side effects are usually mild and can include fever, chills, fatigue, back and joint pain, nausea, and headache. A few men may have more severe symptoms, including problems breathing and high blood pressure.
Talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC): This vaccine is approved to treat advanced melanoma skin cancer. It is made from a herpes virus that has been altered in the lab to produce a substance that the body normally produces, called a cytokine. This cytokine boosts the immune system and can cause flu-like symptoms for a short time.
Other types of cancer vaccines have shown some promise in clinical trials, but they are not yet approved in the U.S. to treat cancer.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). ASCO Annual Meeting 2019: Immunotherapy for lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancers and targeted therapy for breast cancer. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/blog/2019-06/asco-annual-meeting-2019-immunotherapy-lung-cancer-gastrointestinal-cancers-and-targeted-therapy on December 19, 2019.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Understanding immunotherapy. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/immunotherapy-and-vaccines/understanding-immunotherapy on December 19, 2019.
Bayer VR, Davis ME, Gordan RA, et al. Immunotherapy. In Olsen MM, LeFebvre KB, Brassil KJ, eds. Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy Guidelines and Recommendations for Practice. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2019:149-189.
Coventry BJ. Therapeutic vaccination immunomodulation: Forming the basis of all cancer immunotherapy. Ther Adv Vaccines Immunother. 2019; 1:7:2515135519862234. Accessed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6676259/ on December 19, 2019.
DeMaria PJ, Bilusic M. Cancer vaccines. Hematol Oncol Clin North Am. 2019; 33(2):199-214.
Saslow D, Andrews KS, Manassaram-Baptiste D, et al. Human papillomavirus vaccination 2020 guideline update: American Cancer Society guideline adaptation. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020; DOI: 10.3322/caac.21616.
Last Revised: January 8, 2020
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