16 November 2005
An unglamorous quest to discover why HIV-positive men were plagued with anal warts led Professor Ian Frazer to a hugely lauded scientific discovery — a vaccine against cervical cancer. By Bianca Nogrady.
PROFESSOR Ian Frazer radiates energy, albeit an energy tinged with impatience. He may be enthusiastic and talkative throughout this umpteenth media interview, but you can tell he really just wants to get back to his work.
That’s understandable — after all, not only has he led research that could eliminate the spectre of cervical cancer, but he is now on the verge of another breakthrough that has some touting him as Australia’s next Nobel laureate.
Described as “the common cold of sexual activity”, HPV infects an estimated 630 million women around the world, indirectly claiming the lives of about 288,000 each year.
Professor Frazer has already been instrumental in the development of a prophylactic vaccine against HPV and now he is turning his attention to the hunt for a therapeutic vaccine that could eliminate the virus in women who are already infected, reducing the risk of chronic infection and its potentially carcinogenic consequences.
Not bad for someone who originally trained as a renal physician. But, as Frazer tells it, immunology beckoned him from his student days back in his native Scotland. He finally got his chance to indulge his passion when Professor Ian Mackay, who he met while on a student secondment to Melbourne, offered him a position in his clinical immunology unit at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Professor Mackay, now honorary visiting professor at Monash University’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology, had been impressed by the young researcher’s deep-seated interest in immunology and its impact on human wellbeing.
With HIV just rearing its head in Australia, Frazer became interested in why HIV-positive men were so afflicted by anal and penile warts caused by HPV.
“At that time there was nothing known about it [HPV],” says Frazer, in the broad Scottish accent he has retained throughout his 20 years in Australia. “Much of the immunology had been done on the basis that there was one type of virus.
“Back in 1987, we were already thinking about vaccines, and how we might develop them, but at that time we were mostly thinking therapeutically — to treat infection rather than prevent it.”
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