Vaccines are among medicine’s greatest discoveries. By boosting the immune system’s natural ability to destroy “foreign invaders,” vaccines effectively prevent deadly infectious diseases like chicken pox, measles, and polio. Thanks to recent scientific advancements, vaccines also increasingly help prevent and treat some types of cancer.
Vaccines help prevent hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, which can increase risk for liver cancer. Vaccines also provide lifelong protection against human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical and head and neck cancers.
Years of data suggest that the HPV vaccine provides nearly 100 percent long-lasting protection against future HPV infection and disease for many strains of the HPV virus. The vaccine, however, cannot protect against existing infections.
The February 2017 American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for HPV vaccine emphasize vaccination not only female adolescents but males as well. This recommendation addresses the worrisome increased incidence of a type of head and neck cancer. The previously unvaccinated male population has been at particularly increased risk.
Unfortunately, most cancers – including breast, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancers – are not caused by infections. While researchers are attempting to make vaccines to prevent these most common cancer types, it likely will be many years before those vaccines could be available.
Vaccinations as Cancer Treatment
In addition to vaccines that prevent cancers, new vaccines can be used to treat some existing cancers in patients.
These therapeutic vaccines are a type of immunotherapy. Rather than preventing disease, these treatment vaccines attempt to get the body’s immune system to attack existing cancer cells in order to:
• Delay or stop cancer cell growth
• Shrink tumors
• Eliminate cancer cells
• Prevent the cancer from reoccurring
Treatment vaccines are customized based upon existing cancer tissues taken from the patient’s body. The vaccines introduce one or more antigens into the body, usually by injection, to stimulate new immune cells.
The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) also has approved cancer treatment vaccines for melanoma and advanced prostate cancer, and more are on the horizon. In addition to these, Texas Oncology researchers and patients have participated in clinical trials on a three-part protein-based vaccine that attacks different types of tumors:
myelodysplastic syndrome, acute myeloid leukemia, sarcomas, pancreatic cancers, and brain cancer. Beginning April 2018, Texas Oncology will pioneer a novel multicenter vaccine trial, combining a personalized vaccine with chemotherapy, to target Ewing sarcoma. This primary bone soft tissue cancer affects more than 500 new adolescent and young adults each year in the U.S. Patients who have relapsed or have not responded well to treatment have less than a 15 percent chance of survival with conventional treatments alone.
Billie J. Marek, M.D., FACP
Billie J. Merek, M.D., FACP, Texas Oncology is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology—McAllen, 1901 South 2nd Street in McAllen, Texas. To learn more about exciting advancements in cancer treatment, visit www. TexasOncology.com or call 1-888-864-I CAN (4226)