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Ian Frazer: On the cutting edge of cancer vaccines

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BRISBANE, Australia (CNN) -- Clinical immunologist Dr. Ian Frazer is experiencing what many scientists can only dream of; developing a vaccine in a laboratory and then seeing it being used and marketed all over the world.

The 2006 Australian of the Year spent 20 years researching the link between human papilloma viruses and cancer. As a result of his discoveries and those of China's Dr. Jian Zhou, the Gardasil vaccine has been developed to prevent and treat cervical cancer.

"There are so many hardships in research, like in all jobs, but there are so many knock-backs and negatives. And to see something come full circle into fruition, into a product, that is going to save lives is tremendously satisfying," Frazer says.

According to Frazer, cervical cancer is at or near the top of the most common causes of cancer death for women in most countries in the world.

"There is this sort of epidemic of cervical cancer: 250 million women die of this every year," Frazer says. "In the developed world, of course, we have the advantage of the pap smear program which is quite effective at preventing cervical cancer. ... But in the developing world, there are no pap smears and, indeed, there are no treatments available for cervical cancer in the developing world either, so if you get the disease, you die."

The current vaccine has shown to prevent human papilloma virus infection and reduce pap smear abnormalities by 90 percent. It also has the potential to virtually eradicate cervical cancer within a generation.

That Frazer became interested in immunology through a round about meeting and then the vaccine happened almost by accident, makes the discovery all the more fortunate for everyone.

"My pen friend's girlfriend's father was an immunologist and when he was chatting up the girlfriend, I was talking with her father about immunology. And that led to my interest in immunology and infectious diseases," Frazer recalls.

"But the story of the cervical cancer vaccine really arose from our observations that we made in the clinic when I was looking after patients with HIV-AIDS back at the beginning of the epidemic, back in the early 1980s.

"We realized that the immune system was obviously important in controlling this virus which we had only recently recognized might be responsible for cervical cancer."

Frazer says the original intention was to make an infectious virus that was the papillomavirus -- a very clever virus you can't grow in the lab. Rather than build that virus he and Zhou built a virus using the common DNA technology, genetic engineering.

But if the hours spent in the Queensland, Australia, laboratory were what Frazer thought was the hard part, the real challenge was yet to come.

Not only did they have to prove that the vaccine would work but they also had to persuade companies that it would be a useful product they could sell.

But even after all the trials, Frazer still thinks the hardest bit is going to be getting the vaccine into the global marketplace and used, particularly in the developing world.

Frazer has had at least one win with the many governments he is trying to persuade to deliver the vaccine.

In Australia, an early controversial decision not to fund a universal school-based vaccination program was overturned and the program is currently being rolled out.

Frazer's other message to governments is that if they invest in scientific research they will get outcomes that benefit people.

As he now knows only too well: "You have to wait awhile, 15-20 years seem to be about the average, but if you put in the money, something good usually comes about".

CNN's James MacDonald and journalist Bina Brown contributed to this report.


Ian Frazer at work in 2005 in Brisbane, Australia.

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