He was named 2006 “Australian of the Year” and was joint winner of CRI’s prestigious William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology. But CRI Clinical Investigator Dr. Ian Frazer is modest about his contribution to the development of the breakthrough cervical cancer vaccine. “Science is a collaborative effort,” he explains. “While individuals may be recognized, it’s a team effort.”
Dr. Frazer’s research began more than 25 years ago in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. He had noticed that many of his patients were prone to anogenital lesions caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). At the same time, in Germany, Dr. Harald zur Hausen, whom Dr. Frazer calls “the father of research in HPV-associated cancer,” discovered a link between the HPV virus and cervical cancer. Dr. Frazer contacted Dr. zur Hausen and this started his interest in HPV and cancer.
Over the next few years, Dr. Frazer’s work was focused on how the HPV virus worked in cells. His search took him to the University of Cambridge, where he met Dr. Jian Zhou, a Chinese scientist with similar interests. Together, they explored the notion of engineering a non-infectious synthetic HPV virus to protect against HPV-associated cancer. “It’s the genetic material inside the virus that causes all the trouble,” Dr. Frazer explains. “We realized that if we could manufacture the harmless outside shell of the virus we would have the basis for a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. Back in 1990, Jian and I came up with a way of doing this.”
With the basic technology in place, CRI provided support for the laboratory monitoring of the vaccine's effectiveness. "CRI is also supporting the new therapeutic trials I’m pursuing to find ways to protect people already infected with HPV," says Dr. Frazer. "Half-a-million women already exposed to HPV will continue to develop cervical cancer every year, and half of those women will die.”
“A therapeutic cervical vaccine,” Dr. Frazer says, “will take a lot of work to go from the lab to a real product. But as long as funding continues, I’d say we could well have a therapeutic vaccine for cervical cancer within the next decade.”
HPV Facts and Figures
- HPV is responsible for more than 90 percent of anal and cervical cancers.
- HPV is responsible for approximately 70 percent of vaginal and vulvar cancers.
- HPV is responsible for approximately 60 percent of penile cancers.
- HPV may be responsible for 60-70 percent of cancers of the oropharynx.
- Two HPV types (16 and 18) cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and pre-cancerous cervical lesions.
- There were estimated 570,000 cases and 311,000 deaths from cervical cancer in 2018 worldwide.
- Cervical cancer is the fourth most frequently diagnosed cancer and the fourth leading cause of cancer death in women.
- Australia's HPV vaccination program has led to a 77 percent reduction in the types of HPV most responsible for cervical cancer.
- Australia's HPV vaccination program may eliminate cervical cancer in the country within the next two decades.
- An estimated 13,170 cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. and an estimated 4,250 deaths will occur in 2019.
- Cervical cancer incidence and death rates in the U.S. have declined by about half since 1975, but the pace of the reduction has slowed from 2006 to 2016.
- The HPV immunization rate remains low in the U.S. In 2017, 53 percent of girls and 44 percent of boys 13-17 years of age were up to date with the CDC-recommended HPV vaccination series.
Sources: ACS Cancer Facts & Figures 2019, Cancer Council Australia, CDC, GLOBOCAN 2018, The Lancet Public Health, WHO
Originally published 2018; updated January 2020