Vaccines are a very common subject nowadays. They’ve always been used to prevent infectious diseases, such as flu. But can they also be used against cancer?
Extensive studies confirm that vaccines can be used to fight cancer in a preventive or therapeutic way. Let’s check the differences.
Preventive cancer vaccines
Preventive vaccines act in the same way as vaccines against infectious diseases. That is, they act against infectious agents such as Hepatitis B Virus or Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which can cause some cancers.
Preventive vaccines therefore don’t act on the tumor but on the infectious agent that could cause it, and are therefore preventive. For example, it’s known that it is possible to vaccinate young girls against HPV, in order to prevent the virus from infecting them and cause cervical cancer in adulthood. The virus against Hepatitis B is also available, in order to prevent liver cancer. Both vaccines prevent infections that induces chronic inflammation or direct mutations that are the cause of tumors.
Therapeutic cancer vaccines
Therapeutic vaccines are used in patients who have cancer and the goal is the cure of the disease, not prevention. The use of the term “vaccine” in this case is incorrect because, precisely, it doesn’t prevent the disease; the fact that it stimulates the immune system justifies the use of the term “vaccination”.
Vaccines against cancer used as “precision medicine”?
Therapeutic anti-cancer vaccines are able to stimulate the immune system and train it to recognize cancer cells. In fact, when the tumor forms, antigens are formed on the surface of the cancer cells that are specific to each tumor. Vaccination is usually done by injecting the antigens or taking the patient’s white blood cells and putting them in contact with the antigen in the laboratory before the white blood cells are reintroduced into the patient. It’s a personalized therapy that is part of the branch of medicine known as Precision Medicine (read here for more details). Why personalized? Because, unfortunately, even if two people are affected by the same disease, the molecular characteristics of the two patients’ tumors are not necessarily identical. It’s therefore necessary to vary the therapy patient-by-patient — and at a very high cost.
At the Istituto Nazionale per lo Studio e la Cura dei Tumori “Pascale Foundation” in Naples, a team of researchers led by Dr. Luigi Buonaguro, has been studying liver cancer, in particular Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC), for several years. This cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer death in the world, with about 800,000 deaths per year.
In 2019, the studies of Dr. Buonaguro’s research group were published, opening new perspectives on the use of immunotherapy for the induction of an effective anti-tumor response. The two studies were signed by two young researchers, Mariella Tagliamonte and Angela Mauriello, Biologist and Biotechnologist, respectively.
These studies support the use of an anti-cancer liver cancer vaccine: HepaVac-101, which is found in the Phase II study. In fact, the National Institute of Tumors’ “Pascale Foundation” is the leader of the study, supported by the European Union on this therapeutic vaccine — which is also the first in the world for liver cancer.
First results and new strategies
The first results on the effectiveness of the therapeutic vaccine are expected in early 2020, and they’ll allow for the development of new therapeutic vaccination strategies within the regional program, to combat cancer.
These results represent a wonderful example of excellence in Southern Italy, and of further steps towards Precision and Personalized Medicine.
This post is also available in: Italiano