Unlike vaccines that prevent infections, such as measles and influenza, cancer vaccines are a form of immunotherapy that take down cancer cells that already exist. The vaccines train immune cells, called T cells, to better recognize cancer and target it for destruction, while sparing healthy cells in the body.
For example, the new experimental vaccine works by training T cells to spot specific proteins on melanoma cells, a type of skin cancer. In the study, scientists found that the T cells continue to “remember” these proteins for at least four years after the vaccination — and they even learn to recognize more melanoma-related proteins over time.
“The only way that could have happened is if there was actually killing of the tumor cells. And presumably it was the T cells induced by the vaccine that did that killing,” said study author Dr. Catherine Wu.
While the results are promising, the new study only included eight patients, and more trials need to be conducted to pin down exactly how effective the vaccine is, she added. But as of now, the limited data hint that the vaccine triggers a persistent immune response and can help keep cancer under control, especially when combined with other immunotherapies, the authors noted.