Cancer vaccines are a type of cancer treatment that are still in the early stages of development. This page describes how vaccines can be used to treat cancer and gives an overview of the information available so far.
Vaccines have been used for many years as a way of preventing infectious illnesses such as flu, tuberculosis (TB) and German measles. Vaccines stimulate the body’s immune system to recognise and fight abnormal and foreign cells in the body, such as viruses and bacteria.
Scientists and doctors are now trying to develop vaccines that can stimulate the immune system to recognise and destroy cancer cells.
Some vaccines for particular cancers have been developed. These are being tested to see whether they can treat the cancer or help stop it coming back after treatment. You may be asked to take part in a research trial that includes a new vaccine.
Vaccines are also used to prevent viruses that can cause cancer. In the UK, all 12–13-year-old girls are routinely offered the HPV vaccine, which helps prevent the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV can cause cervical cancer. Another vaccine, called the HBV vaccine, is used to prevent hepatitis B, which can cause a type of liver cancer. In the UK, the HBV vaccine is usually only given to people at high risk of developing hepatitis B. It’s only routinely offered in some Asian countries, where hepatitis is far more common.
This information is about vaccines to treat cancer. We have separate information about the HPV vaccine to prevent cancer.
Some people with early bladder cancer are treated using the BCG vaccine that is used to prevent tuberculosis. The vaccine is put into the bladder and helps stop early bladder cancers from coming back (recurring). Although BCG is a vaccine, it is not a cancer vaccine.
We have more information about the use of BCG in bladder cancer.
Our immune system protects us from infection and disease. It's a complex system made up of the bone marrow, the thymus gland (which lies behind the breast bone), the spleen and the lymph nodes (also called lymph glands).
Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell and one of the most important parts of our immune system. They’re made in the bone marrow and circulate around the body in the blood and lymph vessels. They recognise unwanted or abnormal cells and act quickly to destroy them.
There are two types of lymphocytes: B-cells and T-cells. B-cells develop into plasma cells that make specialised proteins called antibodies. Antibodies circulate in the blood and react to toxins, bacteria and some cancer cells. The body can then identify and remove these unwanted cells.
However, some foreign substances in the body can hide from the B-cells by growing within the body’s own cells. T-cells can sense when the body’s own cells have become abnormal and can destroy them. The whole process is known as an immune response.
After the abnormal cells or bacteria have been destroyed, the surviving B-cells and T-cells develop into specialised memory cells. They remain on watch in the lymph nodes and are reactivated if that particular abnormal cell or substance appears in the body again.
Abnormal cells usually have proteins (antigens) on their surface. The T-cells and B-cells recognise these proteins as foreign or abnormal.
The B-cells produce antibodies that attach to the antigens and attract the T-cells. Together they destroy the abnormal cells.
Cancer and the immune system
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The human body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Cells look and function in different ways throughout the body, but they reproduce and repair themselves in the same way. This process normally happens in an organised and controlled manner. If cells become cancerous they start to divide in an uncontrolled way and don't die when they should.
The immune system sometimes has difficulty recognising that cancer cells are abnormal. As a result, it doesn't destroy them and the cancer cells continue to grow.
Research has also shown that many cancers actually suppress the immune system, making it less effective overall.
The aim of cancer vaccines
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The aim of some cancer vaccines is to get the immune system to recognise specific cancer cells as abnormal and destroy them.
Other cancer vaccines, known as immune restorers or immune modulators, aim to boost the immune system to work more effectively.
How cancer vaccines are made
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Cancer vaccines are made from:
the person’s own cancer cells
someone else’s cancer cells
cells that are grown in a laboratory.
The cancer cells are treated with heat or radiation. This is so they can’t multiply and grow, and to make sure they can’t cause harm.
Certain proteins may then be taken from the cancer cells and used to make a cancer vaccine. These include:
antigens, which are the proteins on the cell surface that can stimulate an immune response
endritic cells, which help the immune system recognise and attack abnormal cells.
Sometimes whole cells may be used to make the vaccine, or sometimes just bits of the cancer cell’s DNA will be used.
As the cancer vaccine contains similar proteins to the cancer cells, it's hoped that the immune system will be stimulated to attack and destroy them.
How cancer vaccines are given
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Cancer vaccines are usually a liquid that's given by an injection under the skin (subcutaneously). How often they are given will depend on the type of cancer being treated and the type of vaccine being used.
Vaccines are often given in combination with other cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy.
Possible side effects of cancer vaccines
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The possible side effects of cancer vaccines include a skin reaction at the injection site, a skin rash or mild flu-like symptoms. Certain cancer vaccines may cause more specific symptoms and you should be told about these by your nurse or doctor before starting treatment.
Cancer vaccine research trials
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Vaccines are being used in research trials. When a new treatment is being developed, it needs to go through various stages of research called clinical trials.
Most trials with cancer vaccines are treating people with advanced cancers that can't be cured. However, some research is looking at treating cancers at an earlier stage. It's possible that vaccines may be used to try to prevent different types of cancer at some time in the future.
Currently most of the research into vaccines has looked at cancer of the prostate gland, breast, pancreas, colon and rectum, lung, skin (mainly malignant melanoma), kidney, ovary, bladder and cervix. Vaccines have also been used to treat lymphoma and leukaemia.
Cancer vaccines have been researched for many years. Some studies on laboratory animals, such as mice, have shown promising results in which vaccines have successfully stimulated the immune system. Research has not always been so successful in humans. However, recent studies have shown more encouraging results.
The reasons why previous studies have been unsuccessful are not fully understood. A number of theories have been suggested, including the following:
Many people with cancer have reduced immunity and so their immune systems are not able to react to the vaccines.
Some tumours produce proteins and chemicals that prevent the immune system from attacking them effectively, even when the immune system has been stimulated by the vaccine.
Not all tumour cells are the same, and some cells may be different from those in the vaccine. Those different cells will be resistant to, and unaffected by, the vaccine.
Some cancer vaccines may not have been given in large enough doses.
If you have any questions about cancer vaccines, talk to your doctor or nurse. It's also important to tell them if you have any symptoms or side effects that may be related to your treatment.
This information has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources, including:
DeVita V, et al. Cancer – Principles and Practice of Oncology. 8th edition. 2008. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Sikora, et al. Treatment of Cancer. 5th edition. 2008. Hodder Arnold.
Thank you to Professor Angus Dalgleish, Consultant Medical Oncologist; and all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to grow.
You could help us too when you join our Cancer Voices Network - find out more.