Nobel prize winner talks findings on HPV

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Nobel prize winner talks findings on HPV

At the 64th Nobel Laureate Meeting, Nobel Prize winners from around the world had the opportunity to present their work and interact with young researchers to share high-profile academic information on recent scientific developments.

The conference, which has been held annually since 1951 in Lindau, a small town in southern Germany, focused on bioscience this year. 38 Nobel laureates specializing in physiology and medicine were invited, along with more than 600 emerging scientists and analysts.

I conducted interviews with four Nobel laureates who attended the meeting, one of the most important venues in which the scientific community can review current trends.

This is a four-part weekly series by the Korea JoongAng Daily.

Professor Harald zur Hausen, 68, is a German virologist who was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contribution to discovering the link between the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer in 1983. Thanks to him, the cost effective Papanicolaou (Pap) tests, or the liquid-based cytology tests, are available for early detection of abnormal cells. In addition, a vaccine can be used to prevent 95 percent of cases from developing into cancer.

In 1965, zur Hausen moved to Philadelphia and worked at the Virology Laboratory of the Children’s Hospital where he contributed to finding that the Epstein-Barr virus ? a virus belonging to the herpes family - can transform healthy cells into cancerous cells.

It was the first time that a link had been made between the microbe and cancer, which was later followed by a connection between Hepatitis B and liver cancer. Both discoveries clearly show that certain viruses can aid the formation of cancerous cells.

Zur Hausen later became an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His work continued at Heidelberg University, where he became a professor emeritus and researcher at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, or DKFZ in German) in Heidelberg.

The professor is now devoting the rest of his life to preventing cancer and improving people’s health. He believes that cancer can be eradicated through collaboration between science and social work, which is one of the main modern ideologies of the international public health and clinical medicine community.

I met Dr. zur Hausen in Lindau, Germany, to discuss his achievements.

Q. HPV has been linked to an increased risk of developing cervical cancer, which is the second-most prevalent form of cancer in women. Your work is believed to have saved, and will save, countless lives.

A. I am very pleased to have helped many avoid the dangers of such a disease through the study of the basic science behind them. Such is the rewarding work of researchers.

In the past, when signs of HPV appeared, medical devices with electrodes would be used in the cervix to contain the virus.

This method was used in the past and was also somewhat effective. But nowadays vaccinations are the most effective way to prevent HPV-induced cervical cancer. The vaccine was developed through basic scientific research after discovering that HPV types 16, 18 and others were linked to the development of cervical cancer.

The vaccine is significantly more effective when compared to the surgical procedures patients went through, as surgery has a 70 percent success rate while vaccinations have a 95 percent success rate.

Cervical cancer has been described as a “unique” form of cancer by the World Health Organization as it is the only type of the disease with an effective vaccination. But in some countries, price matters.

Exactly. Despite the unique, preventable qualities of HPV and thus cervical cancer, there has been controversy over the price of the vaccine. This issue has been caused by a “market problem.”

What do you mean by market problem?

Although the vaccine was developed through basic scientific research and has been made available, its poor marketability has led to an undersupply, causing its price to rise. This is a serious problem. Collective commitment and support is needed to save potential patients. This would encourage pharmaceutical companies to set a reasonable price for the vaccine.

In some countries the vaccine is being sold for more than $400, and that it is creating a social problem. This is really sad. Speaking as a scientist who discovered the link, I hope the vaccine will be priced so that it is accessible to anyone in the world. An international collective effort is needed to prevent roads opened up by scientists being blocked for economic reasons.


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