Immunotherapy is one of the most exciting fields of cancer research.
It has the potential to revolutionize cancer treatment with individualized protocols for each patient. There are several different types of immunotherapy, and different types are effective for different kinds of cancer. The most promising immunotherapy for prostate cancer is a vaccine.
How does a cancer vaccine work?
Prostate cancer vaccines are not like other vaccines that are given to prevent diseases. They are given as a treatment for cancer that already exists. The vaccine that has been approved for the treatment of prostate cancer is called sipuleucel-T. Its brand name is Provenge.
If you are a candidate for treatment with a vaccine, it will be made from your own cells. Your blood is drawn, and cells from your immune system, called dendritic cells, are extracted. These cells are sent to the manufacturer of Provenge. They are combined with a protein compound to produce the vaccine.
After the vaccine is made, it is infused back into your body. It then stimulates your immune system to attack the cancer cells. You will typically get three treatments that are spaced two weeks apart.
Because the vaccine specifically targets markers on the prostate cancer cells, it does not harm your healthy cells. It is unknown at this time if the vaccine continues to attack any new prostate cancer cells that may appear later in your life.
Who is a candidate for the prostate cancer vaccine?
Provenge is typically used for cancer that is not responding to hormone therapy. These cancers tend to be advanced cases that have metastasized. The vaccine does not cure the cancer, but it is used to extend the man’s life for a matter of months.
What are the side effects of immunotherapy?
One of the things that makes the cancer vaccine so appealing is that most men experience very mild side effects. The most common problems are symptoms that mimic the flu. These may include fatigue, chills and fever.
In the worst case, sipuleucel-T may cause an allergic reaction or even stroke. Your doctor can help you evaluate your risk factors for these serious side effects.
What is the future of immunotherapy for prostate cancer?
Ongoing research is looking at the effects of Provenge on earlier stages of cancer. Researchers are also exploring its use in combination with other treatments. Because hormone therapy can have such unpleasant side effects, some scientists are hoping that the cancer vaccine can work with the hormones. The goal is to use the combination to knock the cancer out more quickly, so the hormone therapy can be shorter and less debilitating.
Another intriguing question is whether Provenge can be used as a maintenance therapy. Would it be possible to stop the recurrence of prostate cancer by giving booster treatments?
Scientists are exploring completely different types of immunotherapy, too. They may be able to discover why some therapies that work on other cancers do not work for prostate cancer. There is a great deal of work to be done in this area, and it has tremendous potential.