Cancer vaccines, like traditional vaccines, are aimed at triggering an immune response. But unlike traditional vaccines, cancer vaccines do not aim to prevent cancer from developing. These therapies, instead, work to get the immune system to mount a more effective attack against cancer cells that are already in the body. Typically, cancer vaccines are able to increase the specificity of the immune response.

There are many different types of cancer vaccines being researched and tested in patients with advanced forms of cancer. These are described briefly here, and links to sites with more specific information are provided.

Tumor cells vaccines

Tumor cell vaccines are made from cancer cells removed from a patient. These cells are killed and altered in the lab, and then injected into the patient to trigger an immune response that may be efficient in targeting cancer cells in the body. Most are made using cells, called autologous cells, from the patient being treated.

Antigen vaccines

Antigens are proteins located on the surface of cells. Antigen vaccines are made up of proteins similar to those found on the surface a specific type of cancer cell. These vaccines are sometimes called peptide vaccines, because they are composed of pieces of proteins known as peptides. Their aim is to “teach” the immune system to recognize and target cells producing a specific antigen.

Dendritic cell vaccines

Dendritic cells are specialized immune cells that can “train” T-cells, immune system cells that attack foreign substances, to target particular antigens.

To make this type of vaccine, immune cells are removed from the patient and developed into dendritic cells that are specific to the type of cancer the patient has. These lab-produced, cancer-specific dendritic cells are returned to the patient, with the goal of inducing a better T-cell response against cancer cells.

Dendritic cell vaccines have shown the most promise in cancer treatment, and are moving toward wider use — like Provenge (sipuleucel-T), is already approved to treat advanced prostate cancer. But dendritic cell vaccines, because they are specific to the patient being treated, can be costly and challenging to create.

Vector-based vaccines

A vector is a special carrier molecule, typically made from modified viruses, bacteria or ther agents that can be used to carry antigens into the body. Vector-based vaccines are developed by introducing cancer-specific antigens to the patient, using the vector as a vehicle.

These can be more beneficial than delivering antigens alone, as in the case of antigen vaccines, because they are able to deliver more than one antigen at a time. Moreover, the vector itself may trigger an immune response, amplifying the immune reaction. This type of vaccine can also be less expensive than other types of cancer vaccines.


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