50 years ago, cancer vaccines were a dream

Now, researchers are enlisting the immune system to combat the disease


New strategies to provoke the immune system to attack cancer cells may keep skin cancer (a type of melanoma that spreads through the body is shown) and other tumors in check. Blue indicates cell nuclei, red indicates actin, green an actin regulator, and yellow cellular structures called podosomes.

Julio C. Valencia/NCI Center for Cancer Research

Immune response and cancer therapy, Science News, November 8, 1969 —

The dream of a cancer vaccine is still just that — a dream. But experimenters at Emory University in Atlanta have shown that the basic mechanism — stimulation of an immune response — can take place.


Researchers have devised several ways of getting the immune system to prevent or control cancer. Vaccinations against human papillomavirus, or HPV, prevent infections that cause cervical and other cancers. Hepatitis B vaccines may head off some forms of liver cancer.

Other strategies, like CAR-T cell therapy and PD-1 blockade therapy (SN: 7/11/15, p. 14), prompt T cells of the immune system to go after tumors. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first PD-1 blockade therapy in 2011 and then two CAR-T cell therapies in 2017 for patients with certain types of cancers (SN: 12/23/17 & 1/6/18, p. 29). Overstimulating the immune system can produce severe side effects, so scientists are working to develop safer options (SN: 7/7/18, p. 22).

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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