Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo


Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

In this respect, vaccines are seen as the next up-and-coming cancer therapy, following a group of drugs that use proteins called monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal-antibody drugs, six of which have made it to market, bind specifically to cancer cells and either slow down their growth or mark them for destruction by the immune system. But patients have to take the drugs continuously, and they’re expensive.

With a vaccine, by contrast, patients would in theory only have to get a few shots; their own immune systems would do the rest. David Urdal, president and chief scientific officer of Dendreon, says cancer vaccines today are where monoclonal antibodies were ten years ago. “We’re now at that threshold with the cancer vaccine,” he says.

Some recent cancer vaccines have proved disappointing, however. A breast cancer vaccine from Biomira in Edmonton, Alberta, failed recently in advanced trials. And although a melanoma vaccine from Corixa of Seattle is approved in Canada, the FDA said approval in the U.S. would require a second trial, which Corixa may or may not attempt.

If other cancer vaccines work better, they might still pose problems. Vaccines could prime the immune system to go after not only cancer cells but also healthy ones. And some vaccine strategies require the isolation and purification of immune cells or tumor proteins from individual patients, which may make the treatments prohibitively expensive and labor intensive. But perhaps most worrisome is that, as vaccine developers well know, cancer cells are cunning creatures. “They have a lot of escape mechanisms to overcome obstacles generated by a vaccine,” said Steven Rosenberg, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, who is testing vaccines and other ways of recruiting the immune system to fight cancer.

And even proponents say cancer vaccines probably won’t be enough to fight cancer alone. Vaccines would have to work in combination with other therapies, bombarding tumors from all sides. Still, after decades of frustrated research efforts, recent advances are raising cautious hopes that these new therapies will soon take their place in the cancer-fighting arsenal.

Company Key to Vaccine Status
Antigenics (New York, NY) Proteins isolated from patient’s tumor Kidney cancer vaccine late in phase III trials, with results expected next year; melanoma vaccine in early phase III trials
(Carlsbad, CA)
Whole tumor cells Melanoma vaccine in phase III trials
Cell Genesys (South San Francisco, CA) Genetically modified tumor cells Prostate cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and leukemia vaccines in phase III trials
Corixa (Seattle, WA),
GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals
(Rixensart, Belgium)
Tumor protein or DNA Lung and breast cancer vaccines in phase I trials
Dendreon (Seattle, WA) Specialized immune cells from the patient activated outside
the body
Prostate cancer trial late in phase III, with results expected next year
Progenics Pharmaceuticals
(Tarrytown, NY)
Carbohydrates and proteins found on tumors Two melanoma trials: one in late phase III, the other in early phase III; prostate
cancer vaccine in phase I

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Biomedicine

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives


Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me