Vaccines: The Next Move in Cancer Treatment

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Over the past decade, there have been several advances in cancer treatment, including CAR T-cell therapy and checkpoint inhibitors. Recently, one of the more promising developments is the use of vaccines in cancer treatment.

While vaccines are typically associated with disease prevention, such as COVID-19, they are starting to gain momentum in the field of cancer treatment. Initial attempts to develop cancer vaccines date back to the 1910s, but it was only in 2010 when Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first therapeutic cancer vaccine – Sipuleucel-T. It was developed to treat prostate cancer1.

Cancer vaccines represent a groundbreaking frontier in oncology, leveraging the body's own immune system to combat malignancies. Unlike traditional vaccines that prevent infectious diseases, cancer vaccines aim to stimulate the immune response against existing cancer cells. This innovative approach holds promise in offering targeted and personalised treatments for various types of cancer.

There are cancer vaccines that can prevent healthy people from getting certain cancers caused by viruses. Like vaccines for chickenpox or the flu, these vaccines protect the body from viruses that can cause certain cancers.

This type of vaccine will only work if a person gets the vaccine before they are infected with the virus. There are two types of vaccines that prevent cancer that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

  • HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects against the human papillomavirus (HPV). If this virus stays in the body for a long time, it can cause some types of cancer. The FDA has approved HPV vaccines to prevent cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.
  • Hepatitis B vaccine. This vaccine protects against the hepatitis B virus (HBV). This virus can cause liver cancer.

There are also vaccines that treat existing cancer, called treatment vaccines or therapeutic vaccines. They work to boost the body's immune system to fight cancer. Doctors give treatment vaccines to people who already have cancer.

How do cancer vaccines work?

Thanks to the advancements in immunotherapy, we are now able to better understand how cancer cells hide from our body’s own immune system and how to address the issue. Similar to other immunotherapies, cancer vaccines also work to boost the body’s immune system and destroy cancer cells.

Cancer vaccines operate by training the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells selectively. They often incorporate cancer-specific antigens or proteins, teaching the immune system to identify these abnormal cells as threats.

This immune recognition primes the body to mount a targeted attack against cancer, bolstering the natural defence mechanisms and potentially leading to the elimination of malignant cells. This nuanced approach holds significant potential in enhancing the arsenal of cancer treatment options.

Unfortunately, tumour biology is complex. With a vast molecular diversity, identifying effective target antigens is a challenge2. Further, immune-suppressive tumour microenvironments (TME) can affect the antitumor efficiency of vaccines3.

Further developments in the cancer vaccine field

Over the past decade, several advances in medical technology have helped immensely in the development of cancer vaccines. These advances include mass spectrometry, “omics” platforms for analysing single cell expression of genes and proteins, neoantigen prediction, computational biology, and machine learning4.

Additionally, at the 2023 Koch Institute’s Annual Symposium5, it was stated that making mRNA vaccines tailored to individual patients according to cancer-specific antigens presented by their tumours is the next step forward in the development of cancer vaccines. This is as it takes a shorter time to develop mRNA vaccines as compared to traditional recombinant protein-based vaccines.

Developing mRNA vaccines does come with its own set of challenges, but these personalised vaccines are delivering promising results in clinical trials. Moreover, combining cancer vaccines with other treatments, such as checkpoint inhibitors or traditional chemotherapy, is another exciting area that researchers are exploring.

Towards a promising future

The development of cancer vaccines represents a paradigm shift in cancer treatment. While there is still much to be improved, the progress made so far is remarkable. As ongoing research and clinical trials continue to unveil the full potential of cancer vaccines, it is clear that they are the next move in the evolution of cancer treatment.

With personalised treatment and the potential for combination therapies, the future of cancer treatment is more promising than ever before. Patients, doctors, and researchers alike are eager to embrace this next step in the battle against cancer, offering renewed hope to those affected by this complex disease.

1 Martin A. Cheever, Celestia S. PROVENGE (Sipuleucel-T) in Prostate Cancer: The First FDA-Approved Therapeutic Cancer Vaccine. Clinical Cancer Research, 2011.
Buonaguro L, Tagliamonte M. Selecting Target Antigens for Cancer Vaccine Development. National Library of Medicine, 2020.
Xie YJ et. al. Overcoming Suppressive Tumor Microenvironment by Vaccines in Solid Tumor. National Library of Medicine, 2023.
Schroeder, Bendta. A snapshot of cancer vaccine development. MIT News, 2023.

 Vaccines: The Next Move in Cancer Treatment originally appeared on Parkway Cancer Centre 
and has been republished with permission

Further Reading

The article above is meant to provide general information and does not replace a doctor's consultation.
Please see your doctor for professional advice.