Tumor cell vaccines are made from cancer cells removed from a patient during surgery. These cells are then killed and altered in the lab, with the aim of increasing the potential immune response against them.

Once the harvested cells have been altered and multiplied, they are injected into the patient, whose immune system might then target these and similar cells.

Most tumor cell vaccines are autologous, meaning they are made from cells taken from the patient who is to be treated. The use of autologous cell lines helps to ensure that the tumor cell antigens, or the proteins from the modified cell line, match those on the tumor cells inside the patient’s body. Surgery is usually required to collect a tumor sample large enough to be used to develop a vaccine.

Allogeneic vaccines, in contrast, are made from cells harvested from a different patient than the one receiving the treatment. These are typically easier and less costly to produce. It is yet known which one of the two might be more effective.

How tumor cell vaccines work

When the vaccine, made up of modified, dead tumor cells, is injected into the patient’s bloodstream, it attracts dendritic cells, a special type of immune cell. These cells process the antigens found on the surface of modified tumor cells and stimulate another type of immune cell, called T-cells. T-cells are able to destroy foreign invaders or damaged cells by producing antibodies against them. The stimulation of T-cells results in their activation and proliferation, with these T-cells targeting the antigens presented by the vaccine cell line with the goal of destroying live cancer cells.

Investigative tumor cell vaccines

BriaVax and Viagenpumatucel-L are investigational, allogeneic tumor cell vaccines to possibly treat breast and ovarian cancers, and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), respectively. Both have been successfully tested in Phase 1 clinical trials.

AutoSynVax is a personalized, or autologous, tumor cell vaccine that is currently being investigated in a Phase 1 clinical trial. The antigens presented by the vaccine match those on the patient’s own tumor and this therapy might be used against many different types of solid tumors, including those seen in the brain, breasts, ovaries, and colon.

Gliovac (ERC1671) is a cross between autologous and allogeneic tumor cell vaccines, as it includes whole tumor cells and tumor cell fragments taken from the patient  being treated and from three different patients with a similar cancer. This therapy exposes the patient’s immune system to a higher number of different immune cells, with the intent of being able to create a stronger immune response. It is currently being tested in Phase 2 clinical trials for patients with recurrent glioblastoma multiforme, an advanced form of a very aggressive brain tumor.


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