A top prize in American biomedical science was awarded today to two scientists for their discoveries that led to the development of a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer caused by the sexually transmitted virus.
Douglas Lowy (pictured right), acting director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and John Schiller (left), also at the NCI, won the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation also announced the winners in two other categories: Michael Hall at the University of Basel in Switzerland won for basic medical research for his work on TOR proteins, which are involved in the control of cell growth; and Planned Parenthood, for public service. Winners in each category get a $250,000 prize.
The HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, were approved by the FDA in 2006 and 2009 and are made by Merck (NYSE: MRK) and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK), respectively. Gardasil protects against nine types of HPV responsible for most cases of cervical cancer and is designed for both males and females age 9 to 26. Cervarix is based on similar technology, targeting two HPV types for cervical cancer prevention in girls and young women.
When Lowy and Schiller were studying HPVs at the NCI more than 20 years ago, there was already strong evidence that the viruses cause cervical cancer. In trying to come up with a vaccine against HPV, they faced a big barrier. HPV couldn’t be grown in the lab so they couldn’t use the virus to make a traditional live or attenuated vaccine (which stimulates the body to produce an immune response against the virus), and unleashing a live or weakened vaccine in the body is risky anyway. Instead they discovered that they could use a single HPV protein, L1, to make virus-like particles that don’t cause illness or cancer but would still trick the immune system into attacking the actual virus.
Lowy and Schiller did the animal studies and even the first clinical trial of a vaccine against one strain of HPV, HPV16. They also managed to convince Merck to take up the development of the vaccine, and MedImmune—and later, GSK—soon also jumped in.
Millions of women across the globe have received the vaccine. But vaccination rates have been low in many parts of the developing world where cervical cancer is a major killer, and in girls and adolescents in the U.S., likely because parents may not be comfortable vaccinating their children against a sexually transmitted virus and the vaccine generally requires three doses. The NCI is involved in a clinical trial that is currently testing whether a single dose will provide the same level of protection. “It’s possible that a single dose would be transformative for [improving] uptake, particularly in low-resource settings where 85% of cervical cancer occurs,” said Schiller during a press teleconference today.
The CDC recently changed its recommendations to just two doses for 11 to 12 year old children, which Schiller says may also boost vaccination rates. Still, GSK announced last year it was pulling its vaccine from the U.S. market due to low demand and tough competition from Merck.
In an article published yesterday in the journal Cell, Harold Varmus, a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine and former head of the National Institutes of Health and the NCI (who also worked closely with Lowy at the NCI), wrote: “This Lasker Prize is more than just a reward to two individuals for good science and for the design of a vaccine that prevents cancers and saves lives. It is also a prestigious endorsement of a global community of scientists and health care professionals attempting to harness the immune system to prevent infection and disease.”