Childhood vaccinations offer protection against melanoma

Research published in European Journal of Cancer shows that immunotherapeutic strategies are within reach.

Oxford, 8 December 2004 - Vaccination against tuberculosis or smallpox early in life reduces the risk of developing malignant melanoma by around a half and considerably improves the survival of those who develop the disease. “Vaccination strategies could therefore offer significant protection against this highly aggressive human cancer,” said the researchers from a Working Group of the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer. 

Reporting in the January issue of the European Journal of Cancer, the Group followed 542 patients from 7 countries for a mean of 5 years. Vaccination against smallpox with vaccinia virus significantly prolonged the survival of patients with malignant tumours following initial surgery. It also reduced the risk of developing the disease by approximately 50%. Vaccination against tuberculosis with Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) had “similar, although weaker effects." These findings add to the growing evidence that immunological events early in life can have a lasting impact on the risk of developing a cancer and can affect the course of disease in those in whom it is not prevented, they said.

A re-introduction of mass vaccinia vaccination is unlikely because of occasional adverse effects, but BCG might be considered, because of the global rise in tuberculosis. Alternatively, determination of the underlying immunological mechanisms could lead to the development of a designer vaccine against melanoma and eventually, other cancers, the group concludes.

To explain their findings, the researchers propose a hypothesis where human endogenous retroviruses play a key role. According to Dr. John Grange, one of the researchers from the Working Group, “Many cases of melanoma may be associated with the activity of these viruses that entered the human genetic material millions of years ago. Fortunately, if suitably primed by prior vaccinations or certain natural infections, this viral activity alerts the body’s immune system which can potentially detect cells undergoing malignant change and either repair or destroy them”. However he says that “further studies are required to determine whether any other human cancers are associated with these viruses, as this would offer the opportunity to develop preventive treatments.”

Dr. Grange concludes, “Although vaccination strategies could offer significant protection against melanoma, avoidance of ultraviolet light remains of key preventive importance. Our studies provide hope that the human body is not defenceless against cancer and that simple vaccination and effective immunotherapeutic strategies against established cancers may not be far away.”

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Relevant publications
Grange JM, Coebergh JW, Doré JF. Editorial Comment. Infection, vaccination and protection against melanoma – a ray of hope for novel preventive and therapeutic strategies? European Journal of Cancer 2005; 41:01.

Kölmel KF, Grange JM, Krone B, Mastrangelo G, Rossi CR, Henz BM, Seebacher C, Botev IN, Niin M, Lambert D, Shafir R, Kokoschka E-M, Kleeberg UR, Gefeller O, Pfahlberg A. Prior immunisation of patients with malignant melanoma with vaccinia or BCG is associated with better survival. A European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer cohort study on 542 patients. European Journal of Cancer 2005; 41:01.

Krone B, Kölmel KF, Henz BM, Grange JM. Protection against melanoma by vaccination with Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) and/or vaccinia: an epidemiology-based hypothesis on the nature of a melanoma risk factor and its immunological control. European Journal of Cancer 2005; 41:01.

· Online publication in December 2004 (

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