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Melanoma vaccines

Read about vaccines for melanoma skin cancer.

Cancer vaccines are a type of biological therapy. These are treatments that use natural body substances, or drugs that block them, to treat cancer. 

Vaccine treatment is not widely available because it is still being tested. You can usually only have it as part of a clinical trial.

Vaccines for melanoma

Researchers are looking at vaccines as a treatment:

  • for people with advanced melanoma that has spread to another part of the body
  • after surgery for people with melanoma that is at high risk of coming back, particularly where it has spread to the lymph nodes

How they work

Cancer vaccines are designed to try to stimulate the body's own immune system to fight the melanoma. The immune system does this by making antibodies to specific proteins (antigens) found on melanoma cells.

Antigens are found on all cells. Cancer cells have antigens that the body recognises as abnormal. Antibodies are proteins made by the body that match each antigen exactly. The antibody combines with the antigen and marks that cell to be killed off by the immune system. 

Types of vaccine

A cancer vaccine can either be made:

  • individually with one person's melanoma cells and used to treat just that person
  • using lots of different melanoma antigens from different melanomas and used to treat many people

Vaccines made individually contain all the antigens that come from that person's melanoma. Making it this way can be expensive and time consuming. But it is a good way of trying to make sure the vaccine works.

Other vaccines use several different strains of melanoma cells and have a large number of different antigens. Patients who have this vaccine will have some of the antigens on their melanoma cells and not others. This type of vaccine can be made in large quantities and can treat many people.

How you have it

You usually have cancer vaccines as a small injection just under the skin.

You might have a vaccination every week for a few weeks. And then two weekly, or monthly injections.  You have the treatment over a long period of time. In some people, perhaps indefinitely.

The doctor repeats the vaccine because the melanoma antigens do not stimulate the immune system for a long time.

How long it takes to work

Vaccines take longer to work than other types of cancer drug treatment.

Doctors take blood samples to measure the body's immune response. Research shows that it takes up to 4 months for an immune response to take place.

If the vaccine works, the melanoma's growth rate will begin to slow down. Then it may become stable (not growing any more) for a while. Eventually, the melanoma may start to shrink.

How long it works for

We don't have enough information at the moment to be sure.

In early research studies, the response to the vaccine has lasted for months in some people. In others it has lasted for years. In some people, it doesn't work at all. Researchers are not yet sure why it works in some people and not in others.

Side effects

There does not appear to be many side effects.

Some people have:

  • soreness around the site of the injection
  • similar side effects to other biological therapies - for example flu like symptoms, with a headache, aching and high temperature
Last reviewed: 
02 Dec 2015
  • Vaccination: role in metastatic melanoma
    L Pilla and others
    Expert Review of Anticancer Therapy. 2006 Aug;6(8):1305-18

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