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Is there a cancer vaccine?

Cancer vaccines do exist. When you think of a vaccine, you think of something designed to protect you from a disease. These are called prophylactic vaccines. But vaccines are also being investigated as a way to harness the power of the immune system to fight existing disease, particularly cancer. These vaccines are called therapeutic vaccines.

Cancer cells grow for two main reasons: they develop from normal cells so they don't register as "foreign" to the immune system, and they have developed ways to prevent detection by the immune system. The goal of therapeutic cancer vaccines is to enhance the "foreignness" of a tumor and train the immune system to recognize similar cells as foreign.

There currently is one vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help treat cancer. The vaccine, called sipuleucel-t (Provenge), treats advanced prostate cancer that no longer responds to hormone therapy. Researchers also have several cancer vaccines in late-stage clinical trials, including one to treat breast cancer.
Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
When it comes to cancer, two current strategies to stimulate the immune response are preventive vaccines and therapeutic vaccines. For some cancers, these are feasible approaches. For instance, for some forms of melanoma (the deadliest type of skin cancer), researchers have already identified some of the altered proteins of a normal skin cell that cause a cell to become cancerous. They also know that the immune systems of some people can recognize these proteins. This opens the door to developing a vaccine using these proteins as the antigen. A preventive vaccine (for use in people who have a high inherited risk) and a therapeutic vaccine (for patients who already have melanoma) would both work by stimulating the T cells of the adaptive immune response. The hope is that these cells could outrace and destroy the cancer cells.

Preventive and therapeutic vaccine research for many kinds of cancer is currently under way with the aim of stimulating the players of the adaptive immune system and outrunning what is, in essence, cell division gone berserk.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.