When you think about a cancer vaccine, what do you imagine?
Hopefully it isn’t the anti-vaccine myth that the polio vaccine causes cancer – it doesn’t.
Is it a vaccine that prevents all cancer, a so-called universal cancer vaccine? Or vaccines that target specific types of cancer?
Or do you get thoughts of a cancer vaccine that targets and kills cancer cells, treating patients once they already have cancer?
Sound too futuristic?
While a universal cancer vaccine is likely for than a few years away, many people are surprised that some of the vaccines in the current childhood and adolescent immunization schedule can actually prevent cancer.
Another vaccine is approved to treat cancer.
And that’s good news, as cancer is now the leading cause of death in the United States.
Current Cancer Vaccines
When cancer is caused by an infection, it makes sense that you can prevent the cancer by preventing the infection in the first place. That is the rationale for the current preventive cancer vaccines for the human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis B:
- Gardasil – an HPV vaccine that can be given to preteen boys and girls to protect against most genital warts and anal cancer. Gardasil also protects women against most cervical cancers.
- Hepatitis B – the hepatitis B vaccine prevents hepatitis B infections, which when they become chronic, can develop into liver cancer.
For these vaccines to be effective, they have to be given before you are exposed to the virus. That is why it is critical for preteens to get the HPV vaccine before they become sexually active teens and young adults.
Since babies can get hepatitis B if their mother is infected and they are more likely to develop chronic hepatitis B infections, it is also important that all infants be vaccinated with the hepatitis B vaccine. Vaccination programs that instead try to target just those newborns of mothers already known to be infected with hepatitis B are much less successful than universal vaccination programs.
In addition to a preventive cancer vaccine, another type of cancer vaccine is the therapeutic or cancer treatment vaccine. This type of cancer vaccine actually helps your body fight the cancer.
So far, only one cancer treatment vaccine has been approved by the FDA.
Provenge is approved for some men with metastatic prostate cancer, increasing their survival by about 4 months. Provenge works by stimulating T lymphocytes, a part of our immune system, to kill prostate cancer cells.
Cancer Vaccines in Development
Although there are just four approved cancer vaccines in use today, there are many more in development, including:
- DCVax(R)-L – in phase III trials to treat certain patients with glioblastoma multiforme, a type of brain tumor.
- NeuVax – in multiple phase II trails, including one for certain patients with breast cancer to help prevent breast cancer recurrence.
- Rindopepimut – in phase III trial to treat certain patients with glioblastoma.
- Tecemotide – in phase III clinical trials for certain patients with non-small cell lung cancer.
Even more cancer vaccines are in phase I and phase II trials, such as WDVAX, which is in phase I clinical trials to treat certain patients with melanoma.
Although perhaps not as far along and still in early exploratory or pre-clinical research stages, there are other preventive cancer vaccines being developed too. These new vaccines would provide protection against hepatitis C (liver cancer), Epstein-Barr virus (Burkitt lymphoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and Hodgkin lymphoma, etc.), Helicobacter pylori (stomach cancer), schistosomes (bladder cancer), and liver flukes (liver cancer).
What To Know About Cancer Vaccines
In addition to the hepatitis B and HPV vaccines that can prevent cancer, multiple vaccines are being developed to actually treat cancer.
For More Information On Cancer Vaccines
- Cancer Vaccines and Immunotherapy
- NCI – Cancer Vaccines
- ACS – Cancer Vaccines
- Therapeutic Cancer Vaccines: Past, Present and Future
- On World Cancer Day Remember Vaccines Help Prevent Certain Cancers
- Polio vaccine causes cancer – just a myth