Home Facing Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Treatment Types Immunotherapy

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?
Cancer vaccines are an innovative cancer treatment currently being studied in clinical trials for different cancers, including pancreatic cancer. Generally, vaccines are associated with prevention of disease, such as immunization against an infection. Traditional preventative vaccines work by helping the body fight off viruses, bacteria or other foreign germs. Similarly, the goal of cancer vaccines is to help the body recognize cancer cells as foreign and fight them off. Cancer vaccines are designed to stimulate a person’s immune system.

How do cancer vaccines work?
The goal of cancer vaccines is to help the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells.

Often, the immune system is not able to identify cancer cells as foreign or dangerous. This may happen for several reasons. In some cases, the difference between cancer cells and normal cells is so small that cancer cells go unnoticed and the immune system does not attack them. Also, some cancer cells can undergo changes that make them especially difficult for the immune system to recognize. In addition, some cancer cells have the ability of sending chemical messages that stop the response of the immune system.

If the body’s immune system could recognize cancer cells as foreign or dangerous, it may be able help to fight off the cancer cells like it would fight an infection. The goal of cancer vaccines is to prompt the body’s immune system to do this. Cancer vaccines introduce cancer-associated antigens to the body. Antigens are a specific type of protein that the body “sees” as foreign. Once a cancer vaccine is injected into the body, cells from the immune system engulf the vaccine and display the antigens to the immune system. Then, the immune system recognizes the foreign cells and responds by attacking the cancer cells that contain this type of antigen.

What is the antigen found in pancreatic cancer vaccines?
Researchers continue to investigate and learn more about the specific antigens associated with pancreatic cancer. Cancer cell antigens can be unique to individual tumors, shared by several tumor types or expressed by the normal tissue from which a tumor grows. With pancreatic cancer, there are different antigens currently being studied.

When are pancreatic cancer vaccines used?
Currently, pancreatic cancer vaccines are being developed to treat existing cancer. They may be used after surgery to try to prevent a cancer recurrence by eliminating microscopic cancer cells, to delay or stop the growth of cancer in patients who are not candidates for pancreatic surgery, or to attack cancer cells that have not been killed by other forms of treatment.

Vaccines for the treatment of pancreatic cancer are only available in clinical trials.

What are the potential benefits of cancer vaccines?

  • Vaccines use the body’s own immune defense mechanisms.
  • They provide an alternative to or enhance the effectiveness of standard treatment.
  • Vaccines cause minimal side effects.

What are the possible side effects of cancer vaccines?

  • Generally, the side effects of cancer vaccines are milder than chemotherapy side effects and tend to be associated with cold or flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, nausea, fatigue, etc.).
  • Redness, itching and/or sores can also occur around the injection site.
  • The immune system could potentially attack normal cells in the body. 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.

What are the different types of cancer vaccines and where can I get them?
There are several different types of cancer vaccines being studied in clinical trials for different stages of pancreatic cancer. 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. This listing is updated as existing trials close to enrollment and new trials become available.

For more information about vaccine clinical trials, contact a Patient Central Associate toll-free at 877-272-6226 or email Associates are available Monday – Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., 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.

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