Tetanus shot boosts response to experimental brain tumour treatment

In collaboration with the Press Association
Dendritic cells, photographed by Cancer Research UK scientists

An immune-boosting tetanus injection improved the effectiveness of an experimental brain tumour immunotherapy in a US study of 12 patients.

If the findings can be reproduced in larger studies, experts believe they have the potential to improve survival for people with an aggressive type of brain tumour.

"If confirmed in larger studies, the approach has the potential to dramatically improve survival for people with glioblastoma" - Prof Ben Willcox, CRUK Birmingham Centre

Scientists from the Duke Cancer Institute in the US used a tetanus booster to prime the immune system of patients with glioblastoma before treatment with a type of vaccine therapy. 

On average, patients who received the tetanus pre-treatment survived substantially longer than patients receiving only the vaccine therapy.

Lead author Dr John Sampson, chief of the Division of Neurosurgery at Duke University Medical Center, said the early-stage findings were “promising”.

"Patients with glioblastoma usually survive for little more than one year. However, in patients who received the immunotherapy, most lived nearly five years or longer, so the findings are promising,” he said.

Publishing their findings in the journal Nature, the team focussed on a type of vaccination treatment involving specialised immune cells called dendritic cells. The cells are extracted from the patient and ‘trained’ to spot molecules only present on the cancer cells.

These cells are then injected back into the patient, where they signal to the body’s own immune system to attack the tumour cells. 

The study involved 12 glioblastoma patients. Half were given a shot of tetanus/diphtheria toxoid, while the other half were given a placebo injection. Patients in both groups were then given dendritic cell immunotherapy the next day.

Patients who received the tetanus shot showed a significant increase in survival, compared to patients receiving just the dendritic cell therapy. Three out of the six patients lived for between 57 to 100 months, compared to 11.6 months for those who received the dendritic cell therapy alone.

One of those three patients from the tetanus group continues to have no tumour growth, and is still alive eight years after the treatment.

Professor Ben Willcox, director of the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Centre in Birmingham, said the findings could prove an important step forward for a disease in desperate need of new treatments.

“Glioblastoma is a terrible disease and we urgently need new treatments. While other immune-based therapies are showing huge promise in cancer treatment, early-stage trials testing dendritic cell therapies have so far only delivered relatively modest benefits to patients,” he said.

"Although this study only involved a small number of patients, the early results are promising. If confirmed in larger studies, the approach has the potential to dramatically improve survival for people with glioblastoma. In doing so it would provide a ‘shot in the arm’ for the cancer vaccine field, by encouraging further research on similar approaches in other types of cancer," he added.


  • Mitchell D.A., Michael D. Gunn, Min-Nung Huang, Luis Sanchez-Perez, Smita K. Nair, Kendra L. Congdon, Elizabeth A. Reap, Gary E. Archer, Annick Desjardins & Allan H. Friedman & (2015). Tetanus toxoid and CCL3 improve dendritic cell vaccines in mice and glioblastoma patients, Nature, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature14320