Immunotherapy

Cancer vaccines

Vaccines to treat cancer

Vaccines are a type of Immunotherapy. Research in this area is at an early stage and vaccines are mainly available as part of clinical trials.

What vaccines are?

Normally, vaccines help to protect us from disease. They are made from weakened or harmless versions of the disease they are being made to protect us from. This means that they don’t cause the disease. When you have the vaccine, it stimulates the immune system into action. The immune system makes antibodies that can recognise and attack the harmless versions of the disease. Once the body has made these antibodies it can recognise the disease if you come into contact with it again. So you’re protected from it.

Vaccines to treat cancer

Researchers are looking at vaccines as a possible treatment for cancer. In the same way that vaccines work against diseases, the vaccines are made to recognise proteins that are on particular cancer cells. This helps the immune system to recognise and mount an attack against those particular cancer cells. These vaccines might help to:

  • stop further growth of a cancer
  • prevent a cancer from coming back
  • destroy any cancer cells left behind after other treatments

Types

Scientists are studying many different types of cancer vaccines and how they work in different ways. More research is needed before they have a full picture of how well this type of treatment works and which cancers it may treat.

The following types of cancer vaccines are most commonly under investigation throughout the world:

Antigen vaccines

These vaccines are made from special proteins (antigens) in cancer cells. They aim to stimulate your immune system to attack the cancer. Scientists have worked out the genetic codes of many cancer cell proteins, so they can make them in the lab in large quantities.

Whole cell vaccines

A whole cell vaccine uses the whole cancer cell, not just a specific cell protein (antigen), to make the vaccine. Scientists make the vaccine from your own cancer cells, another person’s cancer cells or cancer cells that were grown in the laboratory.

Dendritic cell vaccines

Dendritic cells help the immune system recognise and attack abnormal cells, such as cancer cells. To make the vaccine, scientists grow dendritic cells alongside cancer cells in the lab. The vaccine then stimulates your immune system to attack the cancer.

DNA vaccines

These vaccines are made with bits of DNA from cancer cells. They can be injected into the body to make the cells of the immune system better at responding to and destroying cancer cells.

Anti idiotype vaccines

This vaccine stimulates the body to make antibo dies against cancer cells.

Cytokine therapies

Cytokines are a group of proteins in the body that play an important part in boosting the immune system. Interferon and interleukin are types of cytokines found in the body. Scientists have developed man made versions of these to treat cancer.

The man made version of interleukin is called aldesleukin.

How interferon and aldesleukin work

Interferon and aldesleukin work in several ways, including:

  • interfering with the way cancer cells grow and multiply
  • stimulating the immune system and encouraging killer T cells and other cells to attack cancer cells
  • encouraging cancer cells to produce chemicals that attract immune system cells to them

Interferon

Interferon is also called interferon alfa or Intron A.

Doctors use interferon for several different types of cancer including:

  • kidney cancer (renal cell cancer)
  • melanoma
  • multiple myeloma
  • some types of leukaemia

You are more likely to have interferon as an injection just under the skin (subcutaneously). Or you might have it into the bloodstream through a drip (infusion). How often you have it depends on which type of cancer you are having treatment for. Most people have interferon 3 times a week. Or you might have it as a daily injection.

Aldesleukin

Aldesleukin is also called Interleukin 2, IL2 or Proleukin. In cancer care, doctors use it most often to treat kidney cancer. It is also in clinical trials for some other types of cancer. You are most likely to have it as an injection just under the skin (subcutaneously). But you may have it into a vein, either as an injection or through a drip. How often you have this drug depends on which cancer you are being treated for.

Side effects of interferon and aldesleukin

The side effects of interferon and aldesleukin include:

  • a drop in blood cells causing an increased risk of infection, bleeding problems, tiredness and breathlessness
  • flu-like symptoms
  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness and weakness (fatigue)
  • feeling sick
  • loss of appetite
  • Aldesleukin can also cause low blood pressure.