Cancer Vaccines: Could this be the end of cancer?

Published: 12 Aug 2019

Scientists have been working on the development of a cancer vaccine for over 50 years, but until relatively recently they were unable to prove exactly how such a vaccine would work. 
In the past few years great strides have been made: first with the preventative HPV vaccine, which has the ability to eliminate cervical cancer completely, but also with the ongoing development of more complex ‘treatment' vaccines. Could these new non-invasive treatments rid the world of cancer forever?

What is a vaccine?

Vaccines train the immune system to find and attack certain types of abnormal cells. The very first vaccine was developed in 1796 when the physician and scientist Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids, who had previously caught cowpox, did not later catch the more deadly smallpox. 

Today vaccines are made from very small amounts of weak or dead germs that can cause diseases — for example, viruses, bacteria, or toxins. It prepares your body to fight the disease faster and more effectively, so you won’t get sick. Having been successful in the eradication of smallpox worldwide, vaccines are commonly used to protect us from infections such as the flu, mumps or measles. 

In a similar way vaccines are now being developed to train the immune system to find and attack cancer cells; they can stop the cancer from developing in the first place, prevent a tumor from growing or spreading, destroy any cancer cells still in the body after other treatments have ended, and block the cancer from coming back.

Cancer vaccines

There are 2 types of cancer vaccine: 

Preventative vaccines

HPV vaccine

Over 80 percent of sexually active people will have HPV at some stage in their lives. The body’s immune system can usually wipe the virus out within a year or two. However, when HPV infections persist, they can eventually cause cancer and are responsible for more than 99 percent of cervical cancers.

In 2007, Australia rolled out the world’s first national HPV program, providing girls in schools with shots of the vaccine. Following the success of this initial project, HPV vaccination programs are currently running in around 115 countries. The injection is now offered to boys too.

The HPV vaccine appears to be working. The latest research shows the vaccine still offers close to 100% protection more than 10 years after it was received, and this protection shows no sign of weakening.

Hepatitis B vaccine

This vaccine prevents the hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection and is recommended for all infants at birth and children up to 18 years. It is known as the first “anti-cancer” vaccine because hepatitis B is the leading cause of liver cancer. 

Treatment vaccines

Cancer treatment vaccines, also called therapeutic vaccines, are a type of immunotherapy. Cancer cells have molecules on their surface called cancer-specific antigens that healthy cells do not have.

Treatment vaccines work by boosting the immune system’s ability to recognize and then attack these antigens, usually getting rid of them. This leaves the immune system with a “memory” that helps it respond to those antigens in the future. 

Some cancer vaccines are designed for individual patients. These types of vaccines are produced from the person’s tumor sample. Other cancer vaccines target specific cancer antigens and are given to people whose tumors have those antigens on the surface of the tumor cells.

Although most treatment vaccines are still undergoing clinical trials and not yet widely available, they could hold the key to successfully treating cancer tumors in the future, without the need for invasive surgery or aggressive drug-related treatments. 

There are currently two FDA-approved vaccines for the treatment of cancer:

Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG): a vaccine that uses weakened bacteria to stimulate the immune system; approved for patients with early-stage bladder cancer

Sipuleucel-T (Provenge®): a vaccine composed of patients’ own stimulated dendritic cells; approved for prostate cancer

Clinical trials are currently ongoing for vaccines to treat cancers such as brain tumors, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, kidney cancer, leukemia, lung cancer, melanoma, myeloma and pancreatic cancer.

Could this be the end of cancer?

We do know that given the right vaccine, many deadly diseases can be eradicated from the planet. Smallpox, a disease that had plagued the planet for over 3,000 years, was declared eradicated in 1979. Rinderpest, a highly contagious disease affecting animals and livestock, was declared eradicated in 2011. 

But these diseases are viruses. Viruses are parasites and can’t survive on their own; they need a ‘host’ to hitchhike on. By using an effective vaccine to stop people and animals from getting infected, the viruses couldn’t keep going on earth. So, they disappeared.

Unlike smallpox and rinderpest, cancers are not parasitic. They don’t jump from one person to another and not all cases are preventable.

It’s unlikely we’ll be able to eradicate all cancers forever. But by continuing to develop our understanding of the structure and behavior of cancer cells, we will be able to create more sophisticated cancer-busting vaccines, giving us the potential to turn cancer from a deadly disease into a curable one.

Scientists from many organizations are working on new vaccines and lengthy trials – these include big pharma companies and venture capitalists who are ultimately investing in their own future profits.  But so too are scientists and projects funded through cancer research charities worldwide. It’s vitally important that this type of groundbreaking research continues so, when finally developed, vaccines are accessible to as many people as possible.  Please, keep fundraising and giving!

If you’re fighting cancer or supporting someone who is, join the Facebook Chemotherapy Support Group and get support and advice from thousands of active members. 

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