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First cancer vaccine approved

June 9, 2006
Courtesy Georgetown University Medical Center
and World Science staff

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first cancer vaccine, which some scientists say could eliminate most new cases of cervical cancer worldwide. 

Developed at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the vaccine “will save millions of lives,” declared Stuart Bondurant, interim executive vice-president for health sciences at the affiliated Georgetown University Medical Center.

Called Gardasil, the vaccine is designed to block four strains of the human papilloma virus. Two of these give rise to nearly three-fourths of cervical cancer cases; two others cause about half the cases of genital warts. The FDA approved the vaccine June 8.

“It’s a researcher’s dream,” said the university’s Richard Schlegel, in whose laboratory the studies took place. Schlegel began a project in the late 1980s studying the virus. Millions of people worldwide are infected with the sexually transmitted pathogen, especially in developing countries, where it strikes 400,000 women annually. 

Without routine preventative care and annual screening, the virus can develop into cervical cancer, the most common form of cancer and top cause of cancer deaths among women in developing nations. 

The vaccine is based on a protein molecule that comprises the virus’s outer shell. It is designed to stimulate an immune response that attacks and cripples the virus.

For many years, “no one really believed in a vaccine’s ability to prevent cancer,” said the university’s Shin-je Ghim. The researchers tested the vaccine in dogs and found it was 100 percent effective in preventing viral infection, Ghim added. Next, she continued, the scientists licensed the technology to a company to begin clinical trials, which found that it also protected women from the virus. 

Cervical cancer is cancer of the uterine cervix, the part of the uterus attached to the top of the vagina. According to the National Institutes of Health, the cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women worldwide, but is less common in industrialized countries because most women have routine Pap smears that can detect early, treatable forms of the disease.

In the United States in 2000, 12,800 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer and there were 4,600 deaths, according to the agency.

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