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Vaccines to treat cancer

Vaccines are a type of immunotherapy. Unlike vaccines to prevent us from disease, cancer treatment vaccines are for people who already have cancer. Cancer vaccines help your body’s immune system recognise and attack cancer cells.

Research in this area is at an early stage. So vaccines are mainly available as part of clinical trials. 

What are vaccines?

Normally, vaccines help to protect us from disease. They are made from weakened or harmless versions of the disease they are being made to protect us from. This means that they don’t cause the disease.

When you have the vaccine, it stimulates the immune system into action. The immune system makes antibodies that can recognise and attack the harmless versions of the disease. Once the body has made these antibodies it can recognise the disease if you come into contact with it again. So you’re protected from it. 

What are vaccines to treat cancer?

Researchers are looking at vaccines as a possible treatment for cancer.

In the same way that vaccines work against diseases, the vaccines are made to recognise proteins that are on particular cancer cells. This helps the immune system to recognise and mount an attack against those particular cancer cells. These vaccines might help to:

  • stop further growth of a cancer
  • prevent a cancer from coming back
  • destroy any cancer cells left behind after other treatments

Types of cancer vaccines

Scientists are studying many different types of cancer vaccines and how they work in different ways. More research is needed before they have a full picture of how well this type of treatment works and which cancers it may treat.

The following types of cancer vaccines are most commonly under investigation throughout the world:

Antigen vaccines

These vaccines are made from special proteins (antigens) in cancer cells. They aim to stimulate your immune system to attack the cancer. Scientists have worked out the genetic codes of many cancer cell proteins, so they can make them in the lab in large quantities.

Whole cell vaccines

A whole cell vaccine uses the whole cancer cell, not just a specific cell protein (antigen), to make the vaccine. Scientists make the vaccine from your own cancer cells, another person’s cancer cells or cancer cells that were grown in the laboratory.

Dendritic cell vaccines

Dendritic cells help the immune system recognise and attack abnormal cells, such as cancer cells. To make the vaccine, scientists grow dendritic cells alongside cancer cells in the lab. The vaccine then stimulates your immune system to attack the cancer.

DNA vaccines

These vaccines are made with bits of DNA from cancer cells. They can be injected into the body to make the cells of the immune system better at responding to and destroying cancer cells.

Anti idiotype vaccines

This vaccine stimulates the body to make antibodies against cancer cells.