Self-Sabotage: Why Cancer Vaccines Don’t Work

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A vaccine that thwarts cancer cells has so far proved to be better in theory than in practice, and researchers may finally understand why. 

The possibility of turning the body’s own immune system against tumor cells has hovered like a medical mirage over the cancer-research community for decades. While tumors emerge from healthy cells that start to grow with abandon, they have enough tumor-specific features that should make them easy targets for an alert immune system that’s trained to distinguish between molecular friends and foes. And this idea was supported by several encouraging trials of therapeutic cancer vaccines, which effectively shrank tumors in cell cultures in the lab.

But when these promising vaccine candidates, including ones against melanoma and lymphoma, were tested in patients, they invariably disappointed. While they promoted some immune response from the cancer patients, this response wasn’t enough to make a dent in tumors. Now researchers report in the journal Nature Medicine that the vaccines themselves may be at fault.

(MORE: A Shot at Cancer)

Willem Overwijk, an associate professor in the department of melanoma medical oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and his colleagues found that a mineral oil known as incomplete Freund’s adjuvant, or IFA, that is added to cancer vaccines to stimulate the immune system, may do too good a job. IFA effectively activates the body to produce T cells, which are supposed to then target cancer cells and destroy them, shrinking tumors and preventing them from spreading to other locations and seeding new growths. But because the IFA is not biodegradable, it remains under skin at the injection site, acting as an irresistible lure for the T cells.

In studies with mice that were injected with a promising vaccine against melanoma, Overwijk was able to document that instead of zeroing in on the tumor, the T cells started to attack the IFA instead. “While the vaccine successfully activates T cells, those T cells then circle back to the injection site where the mineral oil is still sitting under the skin,” says Overwijk. “Very few T cells make it to the tumor; they prefer to go back to the vaccination site.”

(MORE: Experimental Vaccine to Treat Breast, Ovarian Cancer Shows Promise)

Essentially, he says, the vaccine is competing with the tumor for the attention of the immune cells, and the vaccine, because of its powerful ability to stimulate the defensive cells, tends to be more dominant. “That explains why we find nice levels of T cells in blood after vaccination but no correlation with a response against tumors in patients,” says Overwijk.

The oil may not be the only saboteur. It’s also possible that the tumor itself sends out inhibitory factors that either disguise the tumor from immune sentries, or discourage T cells from venturing too close. But if the oil, known as an adjuvant, is part of the problem, then switching to a less potent one may improve responses to cancer vaccines. That was the case when Overwijk and his colleagues tested the same vaccine that was made with a water-based adjuvant instead of IFA; the trade-off, of course, is that the vaccine may not awaken the immune system as effectively as IFA, but the weaker response may be compensated by a stronger T-cell response against the tumor itself.

(MORE: On the Horizon at Last, Cancer Drugs that Harness the Body’s Own Immune System)

So why is IFA used in vaccines if it works against the immunization? It’s very effective in shots designed to generate antibodies against bacteria and viruses, so researchers assumed that it would also be a potent ally in the fight against tumor cells. When that didn’t turn out to be the case, scientists still stuck with the oil, looking instead to other factors like the tumor’s ability to thwart the immune system, to explain why the vaccines weren’t so effective in shrinking tumors in patients. “The adjuvant was the last place we thought to look,” says Overwijk.

But it’s now possible to generate strong immune reaction without IFA, using molecules that weren’t available until recently. Already, researchers at MD Anderson are collaborating with scientists at the University of Virginia to test a melanoma vaccine that will be made in two formulations — one with IFA and another with an immunostimulatory molecule. The team will be taking biopsies of the immunization site and measuring levels of T cells generated by the shot; hopefully the vaccine without the IFA will show fewer T cells congregated around the shot site, which would mean more of these had found their tumor targets.

22 comments
LarryCain
LarryCain

I had good success with vaccine . I did vaccine from 12-10 until 3-12, my tumors from non hodgkins stage 4 in stomach and spleen did not grow however when I got off the vaccine they came back so far I have had 27 rds of chemo. but I am a 5 year survivor.   

RitaMassey
RitaMassey

I too have had great success with cancer vaccines to treat Stage IV breast cancer. I've been in a strong remission for going on five years.

madame_shango
madame_shango

@TIMEHealthland Perhaps Cancer research should be cross-referrenced with Lupus research.The 2 of them might cancel each other out.

LivingPruf
LivingPruf

I am a spouse to a vaccine recipient. My husband is doing well as a result of a vaccine made from his own cancer cells. He is a Non Hodgkin Lymphoma Survivor of a subtype with no known cure at present. Upon completing 6 rounds of chemotherapy and only a partial remission (90% tumor reduction), my husband was part of a vaccine clinical trial at Dana Farber in Boston. After 6 vaccinations, my husband is now in complete remission and it is 3 years later. I am greatful for vaccines!!! We are young parents with the will to live and raise our children. Please know that this article is sending out the absolute wrong message about cancer research/vaccines. My husband is living proof that vaccines work. In addition to my husband, I know several other survivors who recieved vaccines only and have had a complete response. Biovax is the vaccine to watch.  Please talk to real people/survivors. They do exist, and I am happy that my husband and friend are amoung them.

larry.hager.iii
larry.hager.iii

Researchers may want to put a significant amount of vaccine in food. Then the body will respond to the vaccine as food. Then inject the vaccine for the desired effect. There should be an appreciable increase in effectiveness.

Motherto3kids
Motherto3kids

I myself have benefited from a cancer vaccine from Stanford University and have been in remission for 3 years. I was stage 4.  I am a mom to young children and this lymphoma vaccine has given me my life back.  I did not have chemo or any other treatment and had minimal to no side effects. Your article is self sabotage to vaccine progress and research. I know numerous others that have benefited from cancer vaccines and are alive and well a decade later.  There is a subset of patients that do remarkable well and this is being investigated by Dr. Schuster who is also working on Biovax.  Please also read about the Mary Disis M.D. for breast cancer.  Read about VAXIL that is being researched. I personally know more than a handful of people who are alive from cancer vaccine and had an incurable cancer. To name your article "why cancer vaccines don't work" is really sabotage to this research. Read about Dr. Bendandi's work as well. Without the vaccine that I received I don't know where I would be today, it gave me my life back....AND IT WORKED!!!!!

JamieReno
JamieReno

Alice, interesting story, but with respect, you need to do a little more homework on cancer vaccines. For example, data from three clinical trials spanning nearly two decades shows the duration of response to the BiovaxID vaccine for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma increased, on average, by more than a year, and some patients have remained disease free for many years. This vaccine works. Read my story on this vaccine here:  http://therenodispatch.blogspot.com/2012/12/cancer-vaccine-saves-lives-but-fda.html  

crheery
crheery

“@DukeCancer: How some cancer vaccines may sabotage themselves. #cancervaccine http://t.co/XLeP11nsnV” Least insightful article ever? Close

MDAMelanomaOnc
MDAMelanomaOnc

@jodyms @TIMEHealthland Jody, you are one super reporter! Tx so much for seeing this TIME story as well as the prior NPR coverage, & RT.

menshealthnet2
menshealthnet2

@TIMEHealthland Didn't know there was a such thing.

MomWizCom
MomWizCom

@madame_shango @TIMEHealthland  Exactly! I had very early success 20 years ago with an anti-HPV/cancer immunotherapy that turned viciously into an extreme auoimmunity, which I will have to live with for the remainder of my life.  It's brutal, and I wonder how many people would volunteer to trade one for the other. I don't know that I would, and the sweeping effect on society with a population high in Lupus patients may be tremendous if therapy for cancer swings in this direction.

jodyms
jodyms

@MDAMelanomaOnc Thanks so much - I've seen to much of what melanoma can do.

MDAMelanomaOnc
MDAMelanomaOnc

@jodyms Understand what you mean.The up side is that you're taking this awareness and running with it, sharing useful information.Tx, Scoop!