Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight the cancer. They can work with the body’s immune system by:

  • enhancing the body’s immune system to stop or slow tumor growth,
  • changing cell signals that allow tumor growth, or
  • making tumors more susceptible to an immune system attack.

Once researchers better understand the growth and spread of tumors, they will be better able to identify patients who may benefit from immunotherapies. There are no FDA approved immunotherapies for pancreatic cancer. They are still under investigation in clinical trials. Currently, cancer vaccines are the most common type of immunotherapy being studied. Although cancer vaccines are an innovative and potentially effective treatment option, there is still much to be learned about their proper use in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.  

What are cancer vaccines?
Vaccines are generally associated with prevention of disease, such as immunization against an infection.  In much the same way, the goal of cancer vaccines is to help the body to recognize foreign cancer cells and fight them off.

When are cancer vaccines used?
Ideally, cancer vaccines would prevent a cancer from growing within the body.  However, current cancer vaccines are being developed for treatment of an existing cancer.  This new form of treatment is designed to stimulate the patient’s immune system to target and attack the cancer cells.

An important application of a cancer vaccine would be to eliminate microscopic cancer cells that might remain after surgery and therefore prevent cancer from recurring.  Another application would be to prevent further growth of the cancer in patients who are not candidates for surgery.

How do cancer vaccines work?
When the immune system is operating properly, it recognizes the difference between foreign cells and normal healthy cells.  In the case of cancer, the difference between cancer cells and normal healthy cells is sometimes so slight that cancer cells go unnoticed by the immune system and the immune system does not attack them.  In addition, some cancer cells develop systems that make them especially difficult for the immune system to recognize.  Due to these barriers, cancer cells can grow and multiply out of control.

The goal of cancer vaccines currently being studied is to help the immune system respond to specific proteins on the surface of cancer cells, called antigens.  These vaccines introduce the tumor antigens to the body as a way to awaken the immune system and help the body recognize the cancer cells.  If the immune system is now able to recognize cancer cells as foreign invaders, it can destroy those harmful cells.

Potential Benefits of Cancer Vaccines

  • Use the body’s own immune defense mechanisms
  • Provide an alternative to or enhance the efficacy of standard chemotherapy
  • Create minimal side effects

Possible Side Effects of Cancer Vaccines

  • Generally, the side effects are milder than chemotherapy and tend to be associated with cold or flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, nausea, fatigue, etc.).
  • Redness, itching and/or sores can occur around the injection site.
  • The immune system could potentially attack normal cells as well as cancerous cells.  This reaction could include signs of an inflammatory response, such as fever and muscle and joint aches.  If the reaction is against the pancreas itself, this could lead to inflammation of the pancreas called pancreatitis.

Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine Clinical Trials
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is aware of several clinical trials that are in progress to thoroughly evaluate the safety and efficacy of various pancreatic cancer vaccines.  For more information about vaccine clinical trials contact a Patient and Liaison Services (PALS) Associate toll-free at 877-272-6226 or email  PALS Associates are available M-F 7am-5pm Pacific Time.  All services and educational materials are provided at no charge.



Information provided by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Inc. (“PanCAN”) is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or other health care services. PanCAN may provide information to you about physicians, products, services, clinical trials or treatments related to pancreatic cancer, but PanCAN does not recommend nor endorse any particular health care resource. In addition, please note that any personal information you provide to PanCAN’s associates during telephone and/or email communications may be stored and used to help PanCAN achieve its mission of assisting patients with, and finding cures and treatments for, pancreatic cancer. Stored constituent information may be used to inform PanCAN programs and activities. Information also may be provided in aggregate or limited formats to third parties to guide future pancreatic cancer research and treatment efforts. PanCAN will not provide personal directly identifying information (such as your name or contact information) to such third parties without your prior written consent unless required or permitted by law to do so.