What is a therapeutic vaccine?

Person receiving vaccine. Jeffrey Hamilton/Digital Vision/Getty Images

When most people hear the word vaccine, they think of a way to prevent disease. However, therapeutic vaccines aren't used for prevention. Instead, they're used as a method of treatment. Just like a regular vaccine, therapeutic vaccines are used to stimulate the immune system to target an infection or a type of diseased cell - such as a cancer cell. In other words, they help teach the body how to do a better job of protecting itself in order to control, or get rid of, an otherwise difficult to treat condition.

Much of the discussion of therapeutic vaccines revolves around targeted treatments for cancer. However, a number of researchers are also working on developing therapeutic vaccines that might be able to control viral STDs and their complications. For example, not all ongoing HIV vaccine research is looking for a way to prevent HIV infections. Some scientists are also working on developing a therapeutic vaccine to help currently infected patients maintain lower viral loads. This should theoretically be possible, as scientists know that some infected patients are long term non-progressors whose bodies are capable of naturally keeping their HIV infections under control.

Another viral STD that has been targeted by vaccine researchers is the human papillomavirus (HPV). Two preventative vaccines are already on the market, but millions of men and women were infected with HPV before those vaccines became available, and still more are being infected each day.

Therefore, scientists are looking for ways to help women's bodies do a better job of clearing these infections to prevent their progression to cervical cancer - or any of the other cancers HPV can cause in both women and men. This research actually overlaps with targeted cancer therapy research, as some vaccine work in this area goes after the tumors caused by HPV rather than the viral infection.

Furthermore, despite what some people think, scientists are also actively working on both therapeutic and preventative vaccines for herpes. Unfortunately, to date most of the research hasn't been terribly successful. Still, it is a powerful and important goal, and there are definitely people trying to come up with better forms of herpes treatment.

Finally, hepatitis C remains an important target for vaccine development, although expectations aren't terribly high. One of the reasons why hepatitis C is so problematic is that the immune system generally does a pretty bad job of fighting it. Fortunately, the development of highly effective direct acting antivirals is currently making the quest for a vaccine feel a little less urgent, but many people would be thrilled if it were as preventable as hepatitis A and B - for which safe, effective vaccines are already available.


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