Cancer vaccines

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on April 21, 2022.

Unlike traditional vaccines intended to directly prevent diseases such as polio, small pox or measles, cancer vaccines do not directly attack the disease. Still, vaccines are critical to the prevention of many cancer types and in the treatment of others.

How do vaccines work?

A vaccine introduces a small amount of weakened or mutated disease cells into the body. Although it is not enough to make a patient sick, the vaccine has enough cells to help the body build antibodies to recognize and fight off the disease. Depending on the vaccine, the body may know how to prevent certain diseases for an entire lifetime, or the patient may need a booster, or “reminder,” to continue to ward off the disease.

Cancer vaccine types

Cancer vaccines come in two categories, as listed below.

Therapeutic or treatment vaccines

These types of vaccines are designed to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells. Therapeutic cancer vaccines now in use include those listed below.

Sipuleucel-T: This vaccine is used to help treat metastatic prostate cancer. Each dose is made specifically for each patient, using the patient’s own immune cells to seek and attack prostate cancer cells. This treatment typically takes six weeks and is administered in three infusions every two weeks. 

Learn about how prostate cancer is diagnosed and detected.

Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine: Originally developed for tuberculosis, BCG treatment is approved to treat bladder cancer. BCG treatment contains a weak version of a vaccine, containing live bacteria that are injected into the bladder via a catheter. The bacterium attracts immune cells, which then attack cancer cells when the vaccine works as designed.

Prophylactic or preventative vaccines

Preventive vaccines work by killing viruses that may lead to cancer. Vaccines that may help prevent cancer include those listed below.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved several vaccines to prevent HPV infection, which target high-risk HPV strains responsible for nearly all cervical cancers and linked to some throatanal and other cancers.

Hepatitis B vaccine: Getting vaccinated against hepatitis B may help people reduce the risk for developing liver cancer.

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