Vaccines are designed to boost our immune system’s natural ability to protect against disease. This rationale extends to cancer therapy, where researchers are developing new treatments that direct the immune system to fight cancer.
As combination therapies become the new standard in cancer care, experts believe cancer vaccines will be a critical component of the new treatment landscape. In this edition of Guided By Science, we explore the world of cancer vaccines and highlight anew approach to fight cancer with the natural power of our immune system.
Cancer preventative vaccines target infectious agents that cause or contribute to cancer. They are similar to traditional vaccines, which help prevent infectious diseases, such as measles or polio, by protecting the body against infection. Most preventative vaccines are designed to stimulate the production of antibodies that protect the body from infection. Two examples of preventative vaccines are:
Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines: High-risk strains of HPV are known to contribute to the development of certain cancers, including cervical, anal, and oropharyngeal cancers.1 Vaccines like Gardasil® and Cervarix® are approved in the U.S. to prevent HPV infection.
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) vaccines: Chronic HBV infection is known to contribute to liver cancer. The original HBV vaccine was the first FDA-approved preventative cancer vaccine. In the U.S. today, most children are vaccinated against HBV shortly after birth.
Cancer treatment vaccines are used to treat cancers that have already developed. Treatment vaccines are designed to generate a targeted immune response against cancer. They are intended to delay or stop cancer cell growth; to cause tumor shrinkage; to prevent cancer from coming back; or to eliminate cancer cells that have not been killed by other forms of treatment. These vaccines introduce known cancer antigens to the body in order to activate T cells or induce antibody production. To be effective, cancer vaccines must achieve two goals: 1) generate an immune response against a specific cancer antigen and 2) overcome mechanisms that cancer uses to evade the immune system. As we have seen, cancer has multiple mechanisms to evade the immune system. For this reason, it has been difficult to develop effective cancer treatment vaccines.
Similar to cancer treatment vaccines, investigational therapies like ImmunoPulse® IL-12 aim to stimulate the immune system against cancer. However, rather than introducing a specific antigen, ImmunoPulse® IL-12 aims to generate an anti-cancer immune response specific to each patient’s disease. In this way, therapies like ImmunoPulse® IL-12 may be able to overcome the limitations of traditional cancer vaccines. Experts believe the optimal immunotherapy will combine treatments like ImmunoPulse® IL-12 with checkpoint therapies that block the tumor’s ability to suppress the immune system.