Cancer Vaccines/Immunotherapy - The Future of Cancer Treatment

by Brenda F. Johnson Brenda F. Johnson, MSN

Specializes in Gastrointestinal Nursing. Has 30 years experience.

The future in cancer treatment offers hope in individualized treatment. Our immune system works hard to keep us safe from disease, and the use of immunotherapy uses our own cells to formulate an individual vaccine for cancer. In this article, we will look at cancer vaccines that already exist, new individual vaccines (immunotherapy), and Cuba’s surprising role in this new research.

Cancer Vaccines/Immunotherapy - The Future of Cancer Treatment

Our Amazing Immune System

When our body detects an abnormal cell or a microbe that can make us sick, then the white blood cells, or leukocytes jump into action to fight for us. When cancer cells are detected, the killer T cells attack them. There are occasions when it can be difficult for the immune system to detect cancer cells, or the cancer cells escape anticancer responses of the killer T cells.

Vaccines - Preventative and Therapeutic

In an article by the National Cancer Institute called "Cancer Vaccines", the difference between a preventative vaccine and therapeutic vaccine is defined as follows.

"Preventive (or prophylactic) vaccines, which are intended to prevent cancer from developing in healthy people. Treatment (or therapeutic) vaccines, which are intended to treat an existing cancer by strengthening the body's natural immune response against cancer. Treatment vaccines are a form of immunotherapy."

To date, most people have heard of the vaccine for HPV (Human papillomavirus) that is given to young girls to prevent cervical cancer, anal cancer, vulvar, oropharyngeal cancer. It is given to young boys for prevention of penile cancer, anal cancer, and genital warts.

The other preventative vaccine for cancer is the Hepatitis B virus vaccine. This is given in the United States to babies shortly after birth. There are more than one vaccine, some act on Hepatitis B only and others on both Hepatitis B and A.

These vaccines prevent the virus from infecting the body, therefore inhibiting the cancer caused by the viruses.

What is Immunotherapy?

The article, "Cancer Vaccines and Immunotherapy", reviewed by Caitlin E. Lentz, PharmD, research is focusing on vaccines that will generate the immune system to attack cancer cells as well as "boost the immune system's response to cancerous cells". This therapeutic approach would be treating cancer once it has been diagnosed. The two subgroups of these vaccines are autologous and allogeneic.

The autologous (one's self) vaccine is one that is developed from the patient and their own cancer cells. The cancer cells are harvested and then treated to be an objective for their immune system. Once injected, the cells are identified and then destroyed along with the rest of the cancer cells present. This method is a treatment for the present cancer, or to prevent cancer from coming back after surgery and other treatments. There are some completed, but not licensed according to Lentz.

The other type of autologous vaccines are made from a person's own immune cells. There is one that has been licensed called Sipuleucel-t (Provenge) for prostate cancer. The following are steps the patient takes in getting such a vaccine as taken from the latter article.

  1. Patient goes to the lab to get blood drawn.
  2. Lab isolates a certain type of immune cell from the patient's blood.
  3. Lab technicians expose the immune cells to a prostate-cancer antigen fused with an immune-cell stimulator.
  4. Treated immune cells are infused back into patient, through a vein.
  5. Treated immune cells signal other immune cells to attack prostate cancer cells.

The allogeneic cancer vaccines are made from "non-self cancer" cells grown in a lab. These vaccines are less costly to make, and several are being researched, however, they haven't been found effective so none are licensed.

Two other types of vaccines are still in clinical trials, the protein or peptide cancer vaccine and the DNA vaccine. The first used the protein or peptide from cells and the second uses the patient's own DNA.

As the research continues, cost and effectiveness are a large part of the equation. More often, the types of cancer such as breast, lung, and pancreatic that are the best candidates come with high cost and a lot of side effects.

The Latest in Research

In the article, "Cancer 'Vaccine' Eliminates Tumors in Mice", by Krista Conger they boast that in their studies of mice, they were able to eradicate metastases. Clinical trials are being set up that will study patients with lymphoma.

How they are doing this is by injecting "two immune stimulating agents directly into tumors." In fact, Ronald Levy, MD professor of oncology states, "When we use these two agents together, we see the elimination of tumors all over the body. This approach bypasses the need to identify tumor-specific immune targets and doesn't require wholesale activation of the immune system or customization of a patient's immune cells."

Clinical trials are being done for one of the components to be used on humans, the other is already approved. The method Levy uses is one that works to revive cancer-specific T cells by injecting the two agents straight into the tumor. These T cells then seek out other identical tumor cells in the body. This kind of research gives hope to future cancer patients that has never been thought possible.

Cuba's Role in Cancer Vaccines

Most of us do not think of Cuba as being on the cutting edge of the medical community, nonetheless, they have been vital in developing cancer vaccines. 2016 saw a change in travel and trade between the U.S. and Cuba, also lifting restrictions on joint medical research between the two countries.

Due to the embargo that prohibits commercial cargo flights, shipping items from Cuba to the United States is very difficult. Sarah Zhang tells us in the article, "Cuba's Innovative Cancer Vaccine Is Finally Coming to America," how hard it was to get a box of water from Havana to Buffalo New York. This was no ordinary box of water, it contained the test run for a vaccine for lung cancer called CIMAvax. The box traveled to Toronto where it was then escorted to the U.S. border and then on to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

The CIMAvax vaccine is not approved by the FDA here in the U.S., but it is used in countries like Colombia, Cuba, and Peru. Because of their research and the change in political climate between the two countries, they can work together to help people all over the world have a higher quality of life living with cancer. Cuba was also the country responsible for developing the meningitis vaccine in the 1980s. What could the future look like with global collaboration in health care.


The future treatment of cancer is looking more hopeful as researchers continue to develop new methods of treatment. Immunotherapy is getting more publicity and could one day be the standard. Cancer vaccines have moved from being preventative to also being prophylactic, thanks to the help of Cuba. There is a huge amount of information regarding this subject with more coming all the time. Read the research and take notice when you see the news talking about this to see what's new.

Have any of you had any experience with this type of treatment? Please share, we would love to hear your story.

To find information on clinical trials for cancer vaccines you can call the NCI Contact Center at 1-800-4-Cancer (1-800-422-6237).


"Cancer Vaccines". Reviewed 18 Dec. 2015. National Cancer Institute. Web. 6 Feb. 2018.

Conger, Krista. "Cancer 'Vaccine' Eliminates Tumors in Mice". 31 Jan. 2018. Stanford Medicine. Web. 6 Feb. 2018.

Lentz, Caitlin E. (Reviewer). "Cancer Vaccines and Immunotherapy." 10 Jan. 2018. History of Vaccines. Web. 6 Feb. 2018.

Zhang, Sarah. "Cuba's Innovative Cancer Vaccine Is Finally Coming to America." 7 Nov. 2016. TheAtlantic. Web. 6 Feb. 2018.

Brenda F. Johnson, BSN, RN Specialty: 25 years of experience in Gastrointestinal Nursing

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