Instead of priming the body to prevent infection, the goal of preventative vaccines like those for measles or whooping cough is to rev up the immune system of men who already have prostate cancer.
Like his favorite baseball team, Bud Dougherty knows what it takes to go the distance. Doctors diagnosed Bud with advanced prostate cancer. He endured surgery and radiation, then enrolled in a trial testing a new vaccine.
"We are not talking about vaccines in the sense of preventing a virus like polio, but we are talking about therapeutic vaccines that treat cancer by revving up the immune system, in some way, to try to fight the cancer," said Dr. Philip Kantoff, researcher, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
The vaccine doesn't prevent or cure cancer, but it is extending lives. In a three-year study, 30 percent of patients who got the vaccine were alive versus 17 percent who got a placebo shot.
A second prostate cancer vaccine, made from a patient's own cells, is now FDA approved. It's called Provenge and it's approved for patients with prostate cancer that has spread outside the prostate and no longer responds to hormone therapy. It improved three year survival by 38 percent.
"This is extremely attractive and important because it is the first immunotherapy to ever show improvement in survival for the treatment of human cancer," said Dr. Chadi Nabhan, Advocate Lutheran General Hospital.
Dr. Nabhan helped with the original trials of Provenge and is now prescribing it to patients. While the benefit of the approach is modest, extending the lives of patients by a few months. Many researchers say it is still quite significant.
"It helps patients and attacks cancer cells and it's literally the tip of the iceberg in my opinion of proving more treatments than just simple standard chemotherapy is on the horizon," said Dr. Nabhan.
The drug Bud Dougherty is helping test called Postvac-VF is still experimental. Side effects can include fevers, chills and nausea but Dougherty is still going strong.
"I want to be a part of something that works and so people will not die at younger ages and can benefit from it," said Dougherty. For now supplies of Provenge are very limited so eligible patients will probably have a tough time getting it. But reportedly the manufacturer is planning to ramp up production next year.