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Cancer vaccines

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page has information about vaccines to treat cancer. Vaccines are a type of biological therapy. Research in this area is at an early stage and vaccines are mainly available as part of clinical trials. 

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A quick guide to what’s on this page

About cancer vaccines

Vaccines can help to protect us from infection and diseases. But they can also be used to treat some types of cancer and to prevent cancer. Cancer vaccines help the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells.

A vaccine triggers an immune response in the body. White blood cells make proteins called antibodies that can recognise particular proteins in the vaccine, whether these are from a virus, bacteria or cancer cells. If you are exposed to the same proteins again in the future, the body recognises them and starts making the right antibodies to destroy the cancer cells straight away.

Cancer vaccines are a type of biological therapy. There are two main types of cancer vaccines. They can prevent cancer or treat cancer.

Vaccines to prevent cancer
– the only prevention vaccine currently available is for cervical cancer. It works by preventing the human papilloma virus. This virus is known to cause changes in cervical cells that can lead to cancer.

Vaccines to treat cancer – these vaccines try to get the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells. They may stop further growth of the cancer, prevent a cancer coming back, or destroy any cancer cells left behind after other treatments. BCG vaccine can help to treat early bladder cancer. A vaccine is also available for prostate cancer.  

Vaccines as a treatment are an exciting area of cancer research but this research is at a very early stage. Only a very small number of people have benefited so far from vaccines. We need a lot more research before we will know how well this type of treatment works.

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about biological therapy section.

 

 

What vaccines are

Vaccines can help to protect us from infection and the diseases it can cause. But they can also be used to treat and prevent some types of cancer. Vaccines deliver tiny amounts of proteins into the body. Depending on the vaccine, these proteins might come from viruses, bacteria or cancer cells but they are not capable of causing disease. 

The body's immune system recognises that the vaccine proteins are different from its own proteins and sets up an attack against them. White blood cells make proteins called antibodies that can recognise particular proteins in the vaccine. The antibodies stick to the vaccine proteins and help to remove them from the body. Some of the antibodies stay in the body though. So if you are exposed to the same proteins again in the future, the body quickly recognises them and starts making the right antibodies straight away. With vaccines against infection, this is enough to prevent the infection altogether. 

Cancer vaccines help the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells.

 

Types of cancer vaccines

There are 2 main types of cancer vaccines

Vaccines to prevent cancer

There is currently only one prevention vaccine available. It can prevent cancer of the neck of the womb (cervix) by protecting against infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). This virus is known to cause changes that can lead to cancer of the cervix. If women have vaccinations before they have been exposed to the HPV virus, they have a much lower risk of cervical cancer.

The UK has a programme which offers the cervical cancer vaccine to all girls aged 12 and 13. We have more information about the HPV vaccine.

There are many clinical trials under way using vaccines to try to prevent other cancers but this is still early research. You can find many of these trials on our clinical trials database.

Vaccines to treat cancer

Vaccines that treat cancer are designed to try and get the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells. They may

  • Stop further growth of a cancer
  • Prevent a cancer from coming back
  • Destroy any cancer cells left behind after other treatments

This is an exciting area of cancer research. But we need a lot more research before we’ll have a fuller picture of how well this type of treatment works and which cancers it may treat. Scientists are studying many different types of cancer vaccines and they work in different ways. The types most commonly under investigation throughout the world are

These names relate to the way the vaccines are made or how they work. This is very technical and complicated. Most of us don’t need to know all the details of it. If you’d like to know more about them, the links above take you to a brief description of each type of vaccine.

There are some current trials looking at vaccines to treat various types of cancer. To learn about research into cancer vaccines as a treatment, you can look at information about research for specific cancer types. Or you can find research trials on our clinical trials database.

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Updated: 27 November 2014