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Traditional preventive vaccines work by introducing a small amount of weakened or inactive germs, such as bacteria and viruses, into the body to jump-start an immune system response. The goal is to prepare the immune system to defend the body against certain harmful invaders and boost its ability to fight them off. As such, vaccines help prevent many diseases, such as measles, polio, smallpox, diphtheria and tetanus.

Cancer vaccines are a type of immunotherapy that work in a similar way. Some cancer vaccines can be used to help prevent certain types of cancer, while others can be used to treat cancer and reduce the risk of recurrence.

Cancer prevention vaccines

Some types of cancer are known to be caused by certain viral infections. Vaccines that help protect against these viruses can also help prevent the cancers they cause. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved cancer vaccines that target:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) – HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection. Some high-risk strains of HPV have been linked to the development of cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile and throat cancers.
  • Hepatitis B virus (HBV) – A long-term HBV infection can increase the risk of liver cancer.

Cancer treatment vaccines

Unlike cancer prevention vaccines, which can stop cancer from developing, cancer treatment vaccines target cancer that has already developed with the body. These vaccines are designed to help the body’s immune system recognize, target and destroy cancerous cells.

Some cancer treatment vaccines are formulated from cancerous cells or antigens, which are proteins found on the surface of cancerous cells. Other cancer treatment vaccines are created from a sample of a patient’s immune cells, which are exposed to cancerous cells or antigens in a lab. Recently, mRNA vaccines have become more common in the study of cancer treatments. These represent promising new technologies that could help patients.

Some cancer treatment vaccines that are currently in use include:

  • T-VEC – Used for treating advanced melanoma that cannot be surgically removed
  • Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) – Originally developed for tuberculosis and now approved for treating early-stage bladder cancer
  • Provenge - Used for treating prostate cancer

Cancer vaccines at Moffitt Cancer Center

At Moffitt Cancer Center, our dedicated research team continues to add to our overall understanding of the body’s immune system. Through recent scientific breakthroughs and developments, we have significantly advanced the potential of cancer prevention and treatment vaccines, and we are making more progress every single day. 

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check mark symbol Medically reviewed by Kedar Kirtane, MD, Head and Neck Oncology Program

If you have questions about cancer vaccines, you are welcome to talk with a specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center. Request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing a new patient registration form online.