How they work and where they stand

Cancer vaccines may sound like science fiction, but they already exist. Some vaccines, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, can prevent cancer. Other types of vaccines help treat cancer.

A lung cancer vaccine is already being used in Cuba, so you might be wondering how far doctors are from being able to use it in the United States. Researchers in the United States are currently studying several vaccines that target lung cancer. While a lung cancer vaccine isn’t imminent, it may not be too far away.

Keep reading to learn more.

Lung cancer vaccines are therapeutic vaccines. They prompt the immune system to attack cancer cells and can be used to:

  • prevent cancer from coming back
  • destroy cancer cells left in the body after another treatment
  • prevent a tumor from growing or spreading

Vaccines are made from one of the following:

  • cancer cells
  • parts of cells
  • proteins (antigens) on cancer cells
  • your own immune cells

Vaccines combine these cells with substances called adjuvants, which boost your immune response.

All lung cancer vaccines currently being tested are for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Most studies to date have focused on participants with advanced cancer.

Vaccines that researchers have studied or are currently studying for lung cancer include:

  • Belagenpumatucel-L vaccine (Lucanix). This causes the body to produce more of a protein called transforming growth factor-beta-2 (TGF-beta2), which can kill cancer cells. The results of the phase 2 trial have been reported in 2019 and were generally positive.
  • Stimuvax or Tecemotide. This generates an immune response against a protein called mucin 1. In NSCLC, there is too much of this protein. A 2011 study showed positive, but not strongly positive, results.
  • MAGE-A3. This targets an antigen made by cancer genes called melanoma-associated antigen. This vaccine did not work well in a study 2016and researchers no longer study it.
  • CIMAvax-EGF. This targets a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which is overexpressed on lung cancer cells. The vaccine prevents EGF from binding to the receptor, which prevents tumor growth. This vaccine is currently used in Cuba, where several clinical trials have found it safe and effective. A US trial is underway.
  • Racotumomab. This helps the body develop antigens against a type of lipid called NeuGcGM3. A phase 2 and 3 study found that this vaccine resulted in significantly longer overall survival rates than placebo.
  • TG4010. This expresses a protein called IL2, which activates T cells and natural killer cells to attack cancer cells. A phase 2 study of this vaccine has been shown to lead to longer survival times.

Researchers consider CIMAvax-EGF to be the most promising lung cancer vaccine. This is because it is already used in other countries. In the United States, researchers are currently signing up for a phase 1 trial.

The trial will cover:

  • vaccine side effects
  • whether the vaccine prevents lung cancer in people at high risk
  • whether the vaccine prevents lung cancer from coming back in people who have survived stages 1B to 3A of NSCLC

If the trials are successful, CIMAvax-EGF could be the only preventive vaccine against lung cancer. Other possible vaccines are for treatment only.

Other vaccines, such as Lucanix and racotumomab, have passed phase 2 or 3 trials and show promising results. However, they are not approved in the United States.

NSCLC and small cell lung cancer (SCLC) share many of the same treatments. As of 2022, these are the treatments you can get for each.

For the NSCLC:

For SCCL:

  • operation
  • chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • immunotherapy, such as atezolizumab or durvalumab

Lung cancer vaccines show promise, but they’re probably still years away. The most promising vaccine is still recruiting for its clinical trial.

Discuss with your doctor if you want to participate in this clinical trial or any other clinical trial. They can help you figure out if the trial is right for you and how to sign up.

Maria D. Ervin