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Ian Frazer has global ambitions.
The co-inventor, with Jian Zhou, of the vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), the precursor to cervical cancer, wants the treatment to reach as many people as possible.
“All vaccines are for the public good,” says Prof Frazer. “You get the full value out of them only when they are effectively deployed across the planet.”
The HPV vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix, which were the result of more than 25 years of research by the two men, have already been administered to more than 125m people globally, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends the vaccine for women aged from nine to 25.
Australia has also introduced a government-funded vaccination programme for boys, after it recorded a sharp drop in the rate of genital warts linked to HPV since it began using the vaccine in girls, and a marked decline in the rate of high-grade cervical abnormalities in teenage girls.
The University of Queensland, which holds the patents for the vaccine, has waived royalties for its sale in the developing world. About 85 per cent of all deaths from cervical cancer occur in low or middle-income countries, according to the WHO.
“The drug has the potential to make a big difference in the developing world, where cervical cancer is common,” says Prof Frazer. “But we still have to make sure it gets there.”
Dr Zhou, a Cambridge immunologist who paved the way for the vaccine by cloning HPV surface proteins on to a separate virus that served as a template, died at the age of 42, before the vaccine could come to market. His wife, Dr Xiao-Yi Sun, who worked as Dr Zhou’s assistant, remembers those years well.
“Jian and Ian would often leave the lab only to go home, shower and change their clothes and grab a couple of hours sleep. In those days, we were all much younger, determined and singularly focused on finding the answer.”
Dr Sun says that Dr Zhou, a modest man, tended to look for the nearest exit at black tie events celebrating scientific achievement, but he would have been happy to have prevented the premature deaths of so many women.
Prof Frazer continues his research as director of the Translational Research Institute in Australia. His therapeutic vaccine for patients already diagnosed with HPV is currently in human trials.
“We recognise that research is a long-haul game — you do it for your children. Twenty years development time for the cervical cancer vaccine is about normal for most new treatments, particularly for vaccines where you have to be really sure the vaccine is going to be safe.”
This can be a challenge for scientists and for governments in terms of resource allocation, as they tend to be influenced by short-term electoral cycles, he says.
Prof Frazer and Dr Zhou won the popular prize — via an online public vote — in the European Inventor Award.