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Can a Vaccine Prevent or Treat Lung Cancer? What You Should Know

Medically reviewed by Leonora Valdez, M.D.
Written by Emily Wagner, M.S.
Posted on April 19, 2024

Vaccines have long been used to help protect us from viruses. But did you know that doctors and scientists are now developing vaccines to prevent and treat lung cancer? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved any lung cancer vaccines yet. Many are still in studies to make sure they’re safe and effective.

In this article, we’ll discuss how vaccines work to treat lung cancer and what studies have found out so far. If you’d like to learn more about vaccines for lung cancer, talk to your oncologist (cancer specialist).

How Do Vaccines for Lung Cancer Work?

When you think of a vaccine, you probably think of a shot that helps your immune system build resistance to a virus. These vaccines use antigens from a virus to show your body what it looks like. Antigens are usually proteins but can also be other types of molecules associated with a pathogen (virus). This enables your immune system to make proteins known as antibodies that recognize the antigens. That way, your immune system recognizes the virus immediately if you become infected and begins making antibodies to fight it.

Some vaccines being studied to treat lung cancer work the same way. Researchers have discovered antigens that are only found in lung cancer cells. When you get a lung cancer vaccine, your immune system learns to attack those specific antigens.

Other vaccines are given to people who don’t have lung cancer but are at risk of developing it. These treatments can also be given to people who have been treated for cancer and want to prevent it from returning.

Vaccines for Preventing Lung Cancer

The idea of a vaccine to prevent cancer isn’t new. The FDA has approved vaccines against human papillomavirus (HPV) — a virus known to cause cervical cancer, anal cancer, oral cancer, and genital warts.

Now, researchers have begun looking at vaccines to prevent lung cancer. Specifically, these vaccines would be used in people with a high risk of developing lung cancer. This includes those who have previously had non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and want to prevent it from recurring (returning).

Some vaccines use proteins or peptides to activate the immune system to prevent lung cancer. CIMAvax-EGF contains a protein that tells your immune system to make antibodies targeting epidermal growth factor (EGF). Some lung cancer tumors use EGF to grow. By destroying your body’s supply of EGF, CIMAvax-EGF “starves” the tumor, causing it to shrink.

One clinical trial is studying CIMAvax-EGF for preventing lung cancer. People who join the study need to have a high risk of developing NSCLC or have a high chance of their cancer recurring.

CIMAvax-EGF was originally developed in Cuba, and it’s now approved for treating NSCLC in seven countries — though not the U.S. at this time. More than 5,000 people worldwide have been treated with the vaccine. Many studies have found that this treatment improves survival (life expectancy) and quality of life for people living with lung cancer.

Vaccines for Treating Lung Cancer

Several vaccines are also currently being studied to treat people already diagnosed with lung cancer.

Oncolytic Virus Vaccines

One vaccine type uses specialized viruses known as oncolytic viruses (OVs) to destroy lung cancer cells. Unlike other viruses that cause infection and illness, OVs affect only cancer cells and leave healthy cells alone. There is an FDA-approved OV vaccine for treating melanoma skin cancer. Now, researchers are interested in using OVs for lung cancer.

Several studies have found that combining OV vaccines with other lung cancer treatments makes them more effective. Researchers have used OVs with radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs). They’ve found that OV therapy prevents lung cancer from returning and metastasizing (spreading) and improves survival in those who have had lung cancer surgery.

Dendritic Cell Vaccines

Dendritic cell (DC) vaccines use your body’s specialized immune cells to fight cancer. Specifically, a doctor will remove DCs from your body and treat them with growth factors and proteins from lung cancer cells. When the DCs are injected back into you, they activate your immune system and help recognize the tumor cells to fight cancer. The FDA has previously approved a DC vaccine for treating prostate cancer.

One study found DC vaccines improve immune response in lung cancer. A second study combining this cancer vaccine therapy with the ICI drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is currently recruiting participants.

Messenger RNA Vaccines

Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines became well-known during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can think of mRNA as a recipe your cells use to build proteins. Researchers are now studying whether these vaccines can treat different types of cancer. A vaccine called mRNA-4157 (V940) is designed to use mRNAs from a person’s own lung cancer tumor antigens.

The mRNA provides instructions for your body’s cells to make the antigens and activate your immune system. One clinical trial is, as of April 2024, recruiting participants with stage 2, 3, and 4 NSCLC who have had surgery. The study will compare people who receive V940 with pembrolizumab to those who receive a placebo (inactive drug) with pembrolizumab.

Talk to Your Doctor About Lung Cancer Vaccine Studies

Researchers are always looking for people to participate in cancer research. If you’re interested in joining a clinical trial for a lung cancer vaccine, talk to your oncologist. They can help you find a study you may qualify for. You can also check ClinicalTrials.gov for studies near you.

A clinical trial may be an option if your current lung cancer therapy is no longer working. You may also qualify if you’re at a high risk of developing lung cancer. A member of the study health care team will go over any potential benefits, risks, and side effects associated with treatment and joining a study.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyLungCancerTeam — the social network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones — more than 12,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Have you joined a clinical trial for a lung cancer vaccine? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

References
  1. Vaccines — MedlinePlus
  2. Lung Cancer Immunotherapy: Progress, Pitfalls, and Promises — Molecular Cancer
  3. How Do Vaccines Work? — World Health Organization
  4. MRNA-Based Personalized Cancer Vaccine mRNA-4157 — National Cancer Institute
  5. A Vaccine (CIMAvax-EGF) for the Prevention of Lung Cancer Development or Recurrence — ClinicalTrials.gov
  6. What Are Cancer Vaccines? — Cancer.Net
  7. CIMAvax-EGFR Home Page — Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center
  8. Effective Inhibition of the Epidermal Growth Factor/Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor Binding by Anti–Epidermal Growth Factor Antibodies Is Related to Better Survival in Advanced Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer Patients Treated With the Epidermal Growth Factor Cancer Vaccine — Clinical Cancer Research
  9. Oncolytic Virus Therapy: Using Tumor-Targeting Viruses To Treat Cancer — National Cancer Institute
  10. Lung Cancer and Oncolytic Virotherapy — Enemy’s Enemy — Translational Oncology
  11. Vaccines To Treat Cancer — Cancer Research UK
  12. Phase I Trial of Intratumoral Injection of CCL21 Gene Modified Dendritic Cells in Lung Cancer Elicits Tumor-Specific Immune Responses and CD8+ T Cell Infiltration — Clinical Cancer Research
  13. CCL21-Gene Modified Dendritic Cell Vaccine and Pembrolizumab in Treating Patients With Stage IV Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer — ClinicalTrials.gov
  14. What Are mRNA Vaccines and How Do They Work? — MedlinePlus
  15. A Study of V940 Plus Pembrolizumab (MK-3475) Versus Placebo Plus Pembrolizumab in Participants With Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (V940-002) — ClinicalTrials.gov
    Posted on April 19, 2024
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    Leonora Valdez, M.D. received her medical degree from the Autonomous University of Guadalajara before pursuing a fellowship in internal medicine and subsequently in medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute. Learn more about her here.
    Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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