The biography of the immune system and the control of cancer: from St Peregrine to contemporary vaccination strategies

BMC Cancer. 2014 Aug 16;14:595. doi: 10.1186/1471-2407-14-595.


Background: The historical basis and contemporary evidence for the use of immune strategies for prevention of malignancies are reviewed. Emphasis is focussed on the Febrile Infections and Melanoma (FEBIM) study on melanoma and on malignancies that seem to be related to an overexpression of human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV-K).

Discussion: It is claimed that, as a result of recent observational studies, measures for prevention of some malignancies such as melanoma and certain forms of leukaemia are already at hand: vaccination with Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) of new-borns and vaccination with the yellow fever 17D (YFV) vaccine of adults. While the evidence of their benefit for prevention of malignancies requires substantiation, the observations that vaccinations with BCG and/or vaccinia early in life improved the outcome of patients after surgical therapy of melanoma are of practical relevance as the survival advantage conferred by prior vaccination is greater than any contemporary adjuvant therapy.

Summary: The reviewed findings open a debate as to whether controlled vaccination studies should be conducted in patients and/or regions for whom/where they are needed most urgently. A study proposal is made and discussed. If protection is confirmed, the development of novel recombinant vaccines with wider ranges of protection based, most likely, on BCG, YFV or vaccinia, could be attempted.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Portrait
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • History, 21st Century
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / mortality
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Observational Studies as Topic
  • Survival Rate
  • Vaccination / history*
  • Vaccines / therapeutic use*


  • Vaccines