Nobel scientist urges wider vaccination against HPV infection to achieve eradication

20 Oct 2009

A global vaccination programme against human papilloma virus (HPV), to include boys as well as girls, could lead to eradication of the virus and virtual disappearance of cervical cancer, predicted Nobel Prize winner, Professor Harald zur Hausen, after delivering the key-note lecture at the 16th International Meeting of the European Society of Gynaecological Oncology (ESGO) in Belgrade, Serbia, this week.

Professor zur Hausen, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 for his discovery of HPV as the cause of cervical cancer, explained that although HPV prevention will impact mainly on women’s health, it also has important implications for men’s health:

“If we wish to achieve eradication within a reasonable period of time, we will need to vaccinate both sexes, and research has shown that boys respond to vaccination in the same way as girls. The main risk of developing cancer after HPV infection is with women and, because of the cost of vaccines, it has been decided to start with girls. But other cancers associated with HPV infection, such as anal and oral cancer, are more common in men, and genital warts occur in both sexes. So there is good reason to vaccinate boys before the onset of sexual activity as well,” said Professor zur Hausen.

He suggested that future reductions in production costs and development of cheaper vaccines will make wider vaccination a realistic option, and added that a major reduction in HPV 16 and 18 – the viruses which cause 70-80% of human papilloma infections – would probably enable the interval between currently used cervical screening tests to be extended. The introduction of self sampling by women, using new tests for HPV DNA, would also help to simplify screening procedures.

“A therapeutic intervention is also needed to protect people after they have acquired HPV infection, and it would be a great advantage to have targeted chemotherapy that would block viral functions that are responsible for development of precursor and malignant lesions. A lot of laboratories are working on this and, although I know of nothing yet, it will hopefully not be too long before we see progress,” concluded Professor zur Hausen.