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HPV vaccines – are they doing their job?

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Benign and malignant disease caused by HPV (human papillomavirus) constitutes a global public health problem. Genital warts are the commonest viral sexually transmitted infection and 5% of all cancers are HPV associated. The unfolding of the HPV story started in the 1970’s with the recognition that HPVs were a large family of viruses that included types that caused cancer particularly cancer of the cervix, a disease that kills 250,000 women each year. It has resulted in the development of two prophylactic virus like particle (VLP) vaccines using sophisticated recombinant molecular techniques and protein expression. Both vaccines target infection by the oncogenic HPV ’s 16 and 18 and one also targets the low risk HPVs 6 and 11 that cause genital and laryngeal warts. These vaccines are now included in the national immunisation programmes in many countries in the industrialised world and population effectiveness in women is now being demonstrated in those countries with high vaccine coverage. Since HPV associated cancers in men are increasing in incidence an issue of contemporary debate is extending HPV vaccination to adolescent boys.

HPV VLP vaccines are well tolerated and highly immunogenic generating serum neutralising antibody that persists for at least 9 years and a robust recall response at 60 months post vaccination. At present the assumption is that the protection achieved by these vaccines against HPV induced disease is mediated via serum neutralising IgG and this is consistent with what is known of the mechanism of HPV infection in the genital tract. Emerging evidence shows that very low antibody concentrations are protective but at the present there is no immune correlate of protection, disease prevention remains the only measure of the effectiveness of HPV vaccines.

Professor Stanley is Emeritus Professor of Epithelial Biology in the University of Cambridge. She has served on several Research Council committees and was a member of the Biology and Biotechnology Science Research Council from 2000-2003. She was a member of the Spongiform Encephalopathies Advisory Committee that advised the UK government on prion diseases (mad cow disease) and in 2004 was awarded the OBE for services to Virology. She is a research scientist and her research has focussed on how the body defends itself against infections with HPV (human papillomavirus) the cause of cervical cancer in women, how to develop vaccines that prevent HPV infection as well as those that might treat HPV infection and has more than 200 publications on these topics.

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