Vaccine Therapies for Cancer: Then and Now

Target Oncol. 2021 Mar;16(2):121-152. doi: 10.1007/s11523-020-00788-w. Epub 2021 Jan 29.


There are strong biologic and preclinical rationales for the development of therapeutic cancer vaccines; however, the clinical translation of this treatment strategy has been challenging. It is now understood that many previous clinical trials of cancer vaccines used target antigens or vaccine designs that inherently lacked sufficient immunogenicity to induce clinical responses. Despite the historical track record, breakthrough advances in cancer immunobiology and vaccine technologies have supported continued interest in therapeutic cancer vaccinations, with the hope that next-generation vaccine strategies will enable patients with cancer to develop long-lasting anti-tumor immunity. There has been substantial progress identifying antigens and vaccine vectors that lead to strong and broad T cell responses, tailoring vaccine designs to achieve optimal antigen presentation, and finding combination partners employing complementary mechanisms of action (e.g., checkpoint inhibitors) to overcome the diverse methods cancer cells use to evade and suppress the immune system. Results from randomized, phase 3 studies testing therapeutic cancer vaccines based on these advances are eagerly awaited. Here, we summarize the successes and failures in the clinical development of cancer vaccines, address how this historical experience and advances in science and technology have shaped efforts to improve vaccines, and offer a clinical perspective on the future role of vaccine therapies for cancer.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cancer Vaccines / pharmacology
  • Cancer Vaccines / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*


  • Cancer Vaccines