Developing Vaccines to Prevent Cancers Not Caused by Viruses

We now have safe and effective vaccines against several viruses that cause cancer, but can vaccines be developed for cancers that are not of viral origin? That is the goal of NCI-funded researchers who are aiming to use the power of the immune system to prevent cancers that are not caused by viruses.

Vaccines are excellent noninvasive, immune-based interventions to prevent cancer. They usually have fewer side effects than chemoprevention agents, such as tamoxifen for breast cancer prevention, and do not require regular use over many years. In addition, the immune system has a memory. This means that vaccination will produce a reservoir of immune cells that remember a threat to the body and can spring into action if that threat is encountered again.

For many years, researchers have been trying to make vaccines to treat patients with cancer. Now, they think it may be possible to make vaccines that will prevent certain cancers from occurring at all or prevent already treated cancers from recurring.

Research Priorities

To advance cancer prevention, NCI supports a range of basic, translational, and clinical research necessary for vaccine development.

Support Research to Identify and Characterize Candidate Tumor Antigens

NCI supports research to identify and characterize tumor antigens, which are parts of proteins on cancer cells that can trigger an immune response. Tumor antigens that trigger the strongest immune responses may become part of vaccine formulations for cancer prevention and treatment.

In addition to supporting investigator-initiated research in this area, NCI is launching an effort called the Pre-Cancer Atlas (PCA), in which large numbers of precancerous growths and early cancers will be systematically collected, catalogued, and analyzed comprehensively to understand how different types of cancer arise and progress. The creation of this atlas, which will include imaging, genomic, proteomic, and other types of data, will be accelerated greatly by the Cancer Moonshot℠. Characterizing the changes that occur in the cells of precancerous growths and early cancers should enable the identification of potential targets for early intervention, including the development of vaccines. (Learn more about how PCA will improve early cancer detection.)

Facilitate the Development of Cancer Prevention Vaccines

NCI programs that support vaccine development include:

  • NCI’s PREVENT Cancer Preclinical Drug Development Program, which supports early- and late-phase preclinical drug development needs that are not being adequately addressed by the private sector. This program is currently supporting work on several prevention vaccines, including one to prevent colorectal cancer in people with Lynch syndrome, a hereditary condition that increases the risk of colon and several other types of cancer. People with Lynch syndrome have a defect in their DNA repair machinery that results in recurrent mutations at specific protein-coding locations in the genome. The mutant proteins stemming from these mutations are being investigated as targets for vaccine development.
  • NCI’s Phase 0/I/II Cancer Prevention Clinical Trials Program, which supports early clinical development of promising prevention agents. To date, 22 trials have been supported. One of these trials is a randomized phase II clinical trial of a vaccine targeting the tumor antigen MUC1 to prevent colorectal cancer. Abnormally modified MUC1 protein is produced by the cells of advanced adenomas, which are precancerous polyps in the colon. (Learn more about NCI-supported research on this vaccine in the story about Olivera Finn, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh.)

Stories of Impact

NCI supports researchers developing new methods of cancer prevention, including the development of vaccines to prevent cancers that are not caused by viruses.

Pursuing a Cancer Prevention Vaccine

For more than two decades, Olivera Finn has tirelessly pursued one goal in her research: to develop a vaccine to prevent cancer. She has had this goal since 1989, when her research team discovered the first tumor antigen recognized by a type of immune cell that can kill cancer cells. That antigen—an abnormal version of a protein called MUC1—is produced by the cells of more than 80% of cancer types, including cancers of the breast, pancreas, colon, lung, and prostate.

Key Takeaways

  • NCI supports a wide range of cancer prevention research, including the development of vaccines to prevent cancers not caused by viruses.
  • One near-term goal of this research is to demonstrate that these vaccines can safely and effectively prevent cancer recurrence.
  • A longer-term goal is the development of vaccines to prevent multiple types of human cancer.