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 and Cervical Cancer
In cervical cancer, types 16 and 18 of the human papilloma virus (HPV) are implicated in 70% of the cases. Other HPV types also cause cervical cancer, but less often.
- HPV is easily transmitted sexually but infection can be asymptomatic.
- About 630 million people worldwide are infected with HPV, including 20 million in the U.S.
- Globally, cervical cancer causes one-quarter of a million deaths annually.
Originally published July 9, 2013.