Can you get a vaccine for cancer?

Vaccines are usually associated with illnesses like the flu and measles (to name a few). But a vaccine for cancer? That’s new and different, isn’t it? Not necessarily. Scientists have already created certain cancer vaccines, and there may be more to come.  

How do cancer vaccines work? According to cancer immunologist, Dr. Dmitriy Zamarin, “Whether used for prevention of infectious diseases or for prevention and treatment of cancer, vaccines work by similar mechanisms: They teach the immune system how to recognize the infectious pathogen or the cancer cell as something foreign that needs to be eliminated.”

Therefore, cancer vaccines boost the body’s immunity, so that it can identify and fight against specific cancer cells. To find and attack the cancer cells, cancer vaccines help the immune system target antigens on the outside of the cancer cell.

What are some of the cancer vaccines available today?

The most common cancer vaccine is the HPV vaccine. This vaccine doesn’t fight cancer specifically. However, it fights against the human papillomavirus infections, which are associated with cervix, vagina, vulva, penis and other cancers.

The Provenge vaccine is another FDA-approved treatment for men with prostrate cancer.

One concern with cancer vaccines is that while they help the immune system target antigens, they can spur the body to attack its healthy cells, too. Cancer vaccines, therefore, become deadly, rather than life-saving, treatments.

To address this concern, ongoing research is being conducted at the Cancer Vaccine Collaborative.

In the meantime, along with the Provenge and HPV vaccine, other developments include a lung cancer vaccine, as well as a leukemia vaccine.