How Therapeutic Vaccines Work

Therapeutic vaccines aren't like traditional immunizations that prevent infections. Therapeutic vaccines are used as a method of treatment.

Therapeutic vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to target an infection or a type of disease-causing cell, such as a cancer cell. These vaccines help teach the body how to protect itself.

Person receiving a shot
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Scientists know that some people who are HIV positive are long term non-progressors whose bodies are capable of naturally keeping their HIV infections under control. Therefore, it is known that immune system control of HIV infection is theoretically possible.

Researchers are working on developing a therapeutic vaccine to help people who already have HIV so they can maintain lower viral loads.


Scientists are looking for ways to help people's bodies do a better job of clearing human papillomavirus (HPV) 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. Some HPV therapeutic vaccine research is aimed at attacking the tumors caused by HPV rather than attacking the viral infection directly.


Herpes has also been examined in therapeutic vaccine research. There were some promising results from a small therapeutic vaccine trial published in 2017, which found that their trial vaccine was able to reduce both viral shedding and the number of new lesions.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is usually treated with highly effective direct-acting antivirals but therapeutic vaccines may be studied as a potential treatment for this infection as well.

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  2. Morrow MP, Yan J, Sardesai NY. Human papillomavirus therapeutic vaccines: targeting viral antigens as immunotherapy for precancerous disease and cancer. Expert Rev Vaccines. 2013 Mar;12(3):271-83. doi:10.1586/erv.13.23

  3. Bernstein DI, Wald A, Warren T, et al. Therapeutic Vaccine for Genital Herpes Simplex Virus-2 Infection: Findings From a Randomized Trial. J Infect Dis. 2017;215(6):856-864. doi:10.1093/infdis/jix004

  4. Feld JJ. Direct-Acting Antivirals for Hepatitis C Virus (HCV): The Progress Continues. Curr Drug Targets. 2017;18(7):851-862. doi:10.2174/1389450116666150825111314

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