The Royal Society of EdinburghJoint lecture with the Scottish Cancer Foundation,supported by the Cruden Foundation
Vaccines to Prevent and Treat Cancer
Professor Ian Frazer FRSCEO and Director of Research,Translational Research Institute, Brisbane, Australia
24 June 2013Report by Jennifer Trueland
Sometimes described as ‘God’s gift to women’ for his work in developing the HPVvaccine which aims to wipe out cervical cancer, Professor Ian Frazer gave somefascinating insights into the role that immunotherapy already plays in preventing andtreating cancers – as well as some glimpses to the future.
If he’d been asked to give this talk 20 or 30 years ago, said Professor Frazer, itwould have been a very short lecture indeed; it’s only recently that we’ve known forsure that viruses cause cancer in humans. Likewise, using the immune system toprevent or treat cancer is a relatively new concept, but one in which there has beentremendous progress in the last two to three decades.In his lecture, Glasgow-born and Edinburgh-educated Professor Frazer outlined the21
Century challenge of healthy ageing, explained why cancer is such an importanttarget, and looked at what can be done to prevent and treat it. He focused inparticular on the human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, and onthe vaccine (which he was instrumental in developing) that is already drasticallyreducing incidence of the disease in countries running immunisation programmes.Finally, he looked at the prospects for using immunotherapy to treat established HPVinfection, and the challenges that remain.So why should we focus on cancer? In Australia, cancer is the most common causeof death, and there have been estimates that this will be the case worldwide by 2050.Around 70 per cent of cancer is preventable (with effort) and we can now curearound 50 per cent. Our chances of getting cancer depend on our genes (accountingfor around 10 per cent of risk); what we do to ourselves, for example, smoking (30per cent); what we do to the environment (30 per cent); and what we catch it from (30per cent). There’s “quite a list” of things we can do to prevent cancer, he said, but themessages have tended to be confusing, and too full of ‘thou shalt nots’. For example,on one page of a newspaper it might say that coffee prevents cancer, while anotherpage might say it causes it. “It’s not just about telling people what they need to do,”he added, although he pointed out that behaviour modification is effective. Forexample, smoking accounts for around 40 per cent of avoidable cancer worldwide,obesity (in the developed world) around 10 per cent, and alcohol also around 10 percent. If these avoidable cancers were prevented, then it would save around 30 percent of healthcare costs – and mean more money was available for medicalresearch, and for treating the cases that remained.Immunotherapy, that is, using the immune system to tackle disease, is now anestablished component of cancer therapy. There are several approaches. These