Not many scientists live to see vaccine development from basic science all the way through to clinical trials and country introductions, says Professor Ian Frazer, inventor of a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), the infection that causes cervical cancer.
Now living and working in Australia, the 59-year-old Scottish scientist first became interested in papillomavirus infection in 1984, eventually developing the vaccine against HPV which he helped introduce into countries such as Vanuatu, a middle-income archipelago in the South Pacific.
“One in a hundred healthy women walking in the streets (of Vanuatu) already have cervical cancer and there, because there is no treatment available, the cancer will eventually progress and kill them,” Frazer says, echoing a story heard in other middle- and low-income countries.
Of the 275,000 cervical cancer deaths in 2008, more than 85% were in developing countries where women often lack access to effective screening and treatment services.
“The only hope for preventing cervical cancer in the developing world and specifically in Vanuatu is to have a universal vaccination programme,” says Frazer.
You realise that you can actually get it out there and that it can be done in your lifetime.
Professor Ian Frazer, inventor of the HPV vaccine
Set to support the HPV vaccine in developing countries, GAVI could eventually protect 28 million women from cervical cancer by 2020.
Some scientists estimate that as many as 20% of all cancers are caused by infection and therefore preventable with immunisation.
“Cervical cancer is unique amongst the cancers that are caused by infections in that every cervical cancer is associated with a papillomavirus infection,” Frazer says in this interview recorded in December 2011.
“This makes it ideal for the development of a vaccine, because if we can prevent the infection, the disease should disappear,” he says.
Talking in Brisbane, Frazer said he was excited to see his initial idea of an HPV vaccine becoming reality.
“You realise that you can actually get it out there and that it can be done in your lifetime,” he says.