- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Efforts to develop the world’s first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer took a key step forward Monday with test results suggesting that it can provide long-lasting protection.

Four years after getting the vaccine, 94 percent of women were protected from infection with the virus that causes most cervical cancers and none had developed worrisome precancerous conditions, a study showed.

“We’re thrilled about these results. The immune responses seem to be really long-lasting,” said Dr. Eliav Barr, who leads development of the vaccine for Merck & Co. The company plans to seek Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval next year for an expanded version of the vaccine that also could be used to prevent genital warts in both women and men.

The study was funded by Merck and led by University of Washington researchers who presented results Monday at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

If the vaccine makes it to the market, it would be the second developed to prevent cancer. The hepatitis B vaccine dramatically has reduced the number of infections that progress to liver cancer.

Cervical cancer strikes nearly a half-million women worldwide each year and kills about half. In the United States, about 15,000 women contract it and about 5,000 die.

Virtually all cases are caused by infection with human papilloma virus (HPV), which is spread through sex. One strain, HPV-16, accounts for about half of all cervical cancers.

A previous study showed that HPV-16 infections were prevented completely in 768 women who had received the Merck vaccine 18 months earlier. None developed precancerous conditions, either.

The new study followed 755 of these women for four years after receiving the vaccination. HPV-16 infections had taken hold in seven; none developed precancers. In a comparison group of 750 women who received dummy shots, infections took hold in 111 and precancers formed in 12.

Even though protection had waned for a small number of women in the study, the vaccine’s effectiveness was still high, said Dr. Douglas Lowy, a National Cancer Institute scientist who invented the vaccine.

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