Cancer Vaccines (Fact Sheet)

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What are vaccines?

Vaccines are medicines that boost the immune system's natural ability to protect the body against “foreign invaders,” mainly infectious agents, that may cause disease.

The immune system is a complex network of organs, tissues, and specialized cells that act collectively to defend the body. When an infectious microbe invades the body, the immune system recognizes it as foreign, destroys it, and “remembers” it to prevent another infection should the microbe invade the body again in the future. Vaccines take advantage of this response.

Traditional vaccines usually contain harmless versions of microbes—killed or weakened microbes, or parts of microbes—that do not cause disease but are able to stimulate an immune response against the microbes. When the immune system encounters these substances through vaccination, it responds to them, eliminates them from the body, and develops a memory of them. This vaccine-induced memory enables the immune system to act quickly to protect the body if it becomes infected by the same microbes in the future.

The immune system's role in defending against disease-causing microbes has long been recognized. Scientists have also discovered that the immune system can protect the body against threats posed by certain damaged, diseased, or abnormal cells, including cancer cells(1).

How do vaccines stimulate the immune system?

White blood cells, or leukocytes, play the main role in immune responses. These cells carry out the many tasks required to protect the body against disease-causing microbes and abnormal cells.

Some types of leukocytes patrol the circulation, seeking foreign invaders and diseased, damaged, or dead cells. These white blood cells provide a general—or nonspecific—level of immune protection.

Other types of leukocytes, known as lymphocytes, provide targeted protection against specific threats, whether from a specific microbe or a diseased or abnormal cell. The most important groups of lymphocytes responsible for carrying out immune responses against such threats are B cells and cytotoxic (cell-killing) T cells.

B cells make antibodies, which are large secreted proteins that bind to, inactivate, and help destroy foreign invaders or abnormal cells. Most preventive vaccines, including those aimed at hepatitis B virus (HBV) and human papillomavirus (HPV), stimulate the production of antibodies that bind to specific, targeted microbes and block their ability to cause infection. Cytotoxic T cells, which are also known as killer T cells, kill infected or abnormal cells by releasing toxic chemicals or by prompting the cells to self-destruct (a process known as apoptosis). 

Other types of lymphocytes and leukocytes play supporting roles to ensure that B cells and killer T cells do their jobs effectively. These supporting cells include helper T cells and dendritic cells, which help activate killer T cells and enable them to recognize specific threats.

Cancer treatment vaccines are designed to work by activating B cells and killer T cells and directing them to recognize and act against specific types of cancer. They do this by introducing one or more molecules known as antigens into the body, usually by injection. An antigen is a substance that stimulates a specific immune response. An antigen can be a protein or another type of molecule found on the surface of or inside a cell.

Microbes are recognized by the immune system as a potential threat that should be destroyed because they carry foreign or “non-self” antigens. In contrast, normal cells in the body have antigens that identify them as “self.” Self antigens tell the immune system that normal cells are not a threat and should be ignored.

Cancer cells can carry both self antigens and cancer-associated antigens. The cancer-associated antigens mark the cancer cells as abnormal, or foreign, and can cause B cells and killer T cells to mount an attack against them.

Cancer cells may also make much larger amounts of certain self antigens than normal cells. Because of their high abundance, these self antigens may be viewed by the immune system as being foreign and, therefore, may trigger an immune response against the cancer cells.

What are cancer vaccines?

Cancer vaccines are medicines that belong to a class of substances known as biological response modifiers. Biological response modifiers work by stimulating or restoring the immune system's ability to fight infections and disease. There are two broad types of cancer vaccines:

Preventive (or prophylactic) vaccines, which are intended to prevent cancer from developing in healthy people; and

• Treatment (or therapeutic) vaccines, which are intended to treat an existing cancer by strengthening the body's natural defenses against the cancer.

Two types of cancer preventive vaccines are available in the United States, and one cancer treatment vaccine has recently become available.

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