Therapeutic Insights

Breaking Barriers: Advances and Challenges in Therapeutic Cancer Vaccines

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Christopher Oelkrug, Director of Business Development
Christopher Oelkrug, Director of Business Development

Imagine a world where we can arm the body's defenses, pre-emptively training the immune system to unleash a formidable army of tumor-fighting cells. While preventive vaccines have triumphed against specific cancer types, the journey to unlock the true potential of therapeutic vaccines has been a formidable challenge, marked by trial disappointments that initially dimmed the spark of enthusiasm.

Yet, in the face of setbacks, the therapeutic horizon for cancer vaccines is experiencing a renaissance. Fueled by cutting-edge technologies and a deeper grasp of tumor-associated antigens, these vaccines are emerging from the shadows with renewed promise, offering a beacon of hope in the ongoing battle against cancer worldwide.

Vaccines in Development or on the Market Today

In recent years, several cancer vaccines have been in development, with some already approved for specific types of cancer. Here are a few examples worth noting:

  1. HPV Vaccines: Vaccines like GardasilTM and CervarixTM have been developed to prevent infection with certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a major cause of cervical cancer.
  2. Prostate Cancer Vaccine (Sipuleucel-T): Approved for the treatment of advanced prostate cancer, sipuleucel-T is an immunotherapy vaccine that stimulates the patient's immune system to target and attack prostate cancer cells.
  3. Bladder Cancer Vaccine (BCG): Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) is a type of immunotherapy used to treat bladder cancer. It is a live attenuated strain of Mycobacterium bovis that stimulates the immune system to attack cancer cells.
  4. Melanoma Vaccine (T-VEC): Talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC) is a modified herpes simplex virus type 1 that has been approved for the treatment of advanced melanoma. It works by causing the immune system to attack cancer cells.
  5. Lung Cancer Vaccine (Nivolumab and Pembrolizumab): While not traditional vaccines, immune checkpoint inhibitors like nivolumab and pembrolizumab are used to treat certain types of lung cancer by blocking proteins that prevent immune cells from attacking cancer cells.

It's essential to note that the field of cancer immunotherapy is dynamic, with ongoing research and clinical trials exploring new vaccine candidates and combination therapies. There have been some other positive advancements in the knowledge of cancer treatments.

Administering specific chemotherapy in low doses, a technique known as metronomic chemotherapy, has proven effective in eliminating immunosuppressive cells within the tumor microenvironment. When paired with therapeutic vaccines, these dual treatment strategies synergize to expose the presence of a tumor to the immune system, prompting a more rapid and targeted response.

The significance of combination therapies becomes evident in clinical trials aimed at improving patient survival rates. Research demonstrates that patients experience enhanced survival when treated not only with cancer vaccines but also in conjunction with agents such as cyclophosphamide. This particular chemotherapy variant depletes regulatory T cells in the tumor microenvironment, fostering increased infiltration of T cells, and amplifying the overall immune response to the tumor.

In recent years, it became evident that the gut microbiome has also a direct impact on cancer progression and response to immunotherapy. The influence of the gut microbiome on immunotherapy have been shown in several preclinical and observational studies. Especially, a potential gut microbiome modulation via antibiotics, pro-biotics or fecal transplantation are currently conducted in combination with immunotherapies and might be able to increase the efficacy of tumor immunotherapies and DNA cancer vaccines in the future.

Utilizing low-dose metronomic chemotherapy or incorporating checkpoint inhibitors in a tandem or combined therapeutic approach proves instrumental in augmenting the comprehensive immune response to the tumor. With gut microbiome’s potentially being able to increase tumor immunotherapy efficacy, this insight is critical in the ongoing development of cancer vaccines.

Challenges to Overcome

While cancer vaccines are promising immune-therapeutics for establishing immune surveillance, it is important to note that further research and the translation into the clinic has to be conducted by identifying neoantigens, developing combination therapies and optimizing the current vaccine platforms before cancer vaccines become a potent strategy in immunotherapy.

Some key challenges, which may impact a vaccine’s effectiveness and successful integration into mainstream cancer treatment, include:

  1. Tumor Heterogeneity: Cancers are highly heterogeneous, meaning they can differ significantly between individuals and even within the same tumor. This complexity makes it challenging to identify universal antigens or targets suitable for a broad range of patients.
  2. Immune Suppression: Tumors often create a suppressive microenvironment that hinders the immune system's ability to recognize and attack cancer cells. Overcoming this immunosuppression is a significant challenge for cancer vaccines.
  3. Limited Immunogenicity: Some tumor antigens may not be inherently immunogenic, meaning they may not stimulate a robust immune response. Enhancing the immunogenicity of cancer vaccines is crucial for their effectiveness.
  4. Identification of Suitable Antigens: Finding antigens specific to cancer cells while sparing healthy cells is a delicate task. Identifying antigens that trigger a strong immune response against cancer while avoiding autoimmune reactions is crucial.
  5. Delivery Challenges: Ensuring effective and targeted delivery of the vaccine to the tumor site can be difficult. Factors such as poor vascularization, tumor barriers, and potential immune clearance can hinder the successful transport of therapeutic agents to the intended destination.
  6. Optimal Timing and Combination Therapies: Determining the best timing for administering cancer vaccines and identifying effective combinations with other treatments, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapies, presents challenges in clinical trial design and patient management.

Despite these challenges, ongoing research, technological advancements and a deeper understanding of cancer biology and immunology continue to drive progress in the field of cancer vaccines. Overcoming these hurdles will be crucial for realizing the full potential of cancer vaccines in improving patient outcomes.

An Optimistic Future for Cancer Vaccines

The progress in therapeutic cancer vaccines exemplifies the transformative power of unexpected industry innovations. Sustaining this momentum holds the promise of making therapeutic vaccines a reality for global cancer patients. A deepened understanding of the immune system opens avenues for impactful vaccine applications. The increasing approval of such vaccines stands to revolutionize cancer treatment, particularly for inoperable cases with low survival rates. This perseverance signals a positive trajectory, bringing us closer to the ultimate goal of eradicating cancer, recognizing that challenges persist in the ongoing quest to target and eliminate tumor cells.


Learn more about how Advanced Clinical can support your Immuno-Oncology clinical research goals. Check out our related resources: 
✅  White Paper: Trends in Immuno-Oncology Research
✅  Fact Sheet: Oncology Solutions to Deliver a Better Clinical Experience
✅  Blog: The Changing Cell & Gene Therapy Landscape and the Impact on Clinical Trials


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