Cancer vaccines

Vaccines stimulate the body’s immune system to recognise and fight abnormal ‘foreign’ cells in the body, such as viruses and bacteria.. Vaccines have been used for years as a way to prevent infections, for example Tuberculosis, Flu, measles or mumps. Cancer vaccines help the immune system to recognise cancer cells as abnormal and destroy them These vaccines are a new type of cancer treatment and are still in the early stages of development.

What cancer vaccines do

The aim of cancer vaccines is to stimulate the immune system to be able to recognise cancer cells as abnormal and destroy them. Abnormal cells usually have proteins (antigens) on their surface. An antigen is any substance that raises an alarm in the body, causing the immune system to react to and attack it. This immune response can lead to destruction of both the antigens and anything they are attached to, such as germs or cancer cells.

The immune system is much better at recognising and attacking germs than cancer cells. Germs are truly ‘foreign’ to the body, and their cells differ quite a bit from normal human cells. But the differences between cancer cells and normal cells may not be as simple , and the immune system may not always recognise cancer cells as troublemakers. This may be why cancers are often able to grow despite the presence of the immune system.

What are the possible side effects of the cancer vaccines ?

The possible side effects of cancer vaccines include a skin reaction at the injection site, a skin rash or mild flu-like symptoms.

Cancer vaccines are usually a liquid, which is given by an injection under the skin. How often they are given will depend on the type of cancer being treated and the type of vaccine used.
Currently most of the research into vaccines is for the following cancers: prostate, breast, bowel (colorectal), lung, skin (mainly malignant melanoma), kidney, ovary and cervix, and also for myeloma, lymphoma and leukaemia.

If you have any questions about cancer vaccines, talk to your doctor or nurse. It is also important to tell them if you have any symptoms or side effects that may be related to your treatment.

Other vaccines

While true cancer vaccines target cancer cells, there areother useful anti-cancer vaccines that target viruses that can cause cancer.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine is licensed for use in women for the prevention of cervical cancer, caused by the HPV types 16 and 18. The vaccine is proven to be most effective if given prior to exposure to the HPV virus. Learn more about HPV.

Hepatitis B vaccine

Certain viruses can infect the liver, e.g., Hepatitis B virus. This infection can be chronic (it may not go away). The most important risk factor for liver cancer is a chronic infection with the Hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis B vaccine can prevent chronic hepatitis B infection and so can protect against liver cancer.