In a major medical breakthrough, cancer expert Prof Ian Frazer is on the verge of developing a vaccine against skin cancer within a year. The former ‘Australian of the Year’ and creator of the world’s first cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil, has developed a world-first strategy to combat the insidious disease that affects two out of three Australians.
The 57-year-old immunology professor said, “In my lifetime we should be able to remove the threat of skin cancer from the next generation… The smoking gun evidence is there is a virus or viruses that cause it.” He said people can “catch” cancer from a virus. The greatest proof of this theory was the identification of the human papilloma virus (HPV) as the cause of cervical cancer.
Now he is using a similar tactic to try to combat skin cancer, including malignant melanomas. “This group of cancers caused by virus infection present a great opportunity because the idea of vaccinating to prevent a cancer is enormously appealing,” he said. Prof Frazer said the problem was two-fold. “Genetics and variations in people’s immune systems may expose some people to greater risk of skin cancer after sun exposure…If you take away the body’s defense systems, skin cancer becomes more common.”
His proposes that some viruses – particularly the wart virus or HPV – are embedded in the layers of the skin, which then pose a skin cancer risk for people with damaged immune systems. “The technology now exists for me to test my theory…It is very powerful but also very expensive. Using this tool, we will go hunting for the fingerprints of the virus or viruses present,” he explained. Prof Frazer’s team will input all the sequenced genetic information on skin cancer – which will take six months – and then get an answer. “We will know if a virus causes skin cancer and what virus it is,” he assured.
To test his theory, Professor Frazer said he needed $20 million. So he and fellow University of Queensland professor, David Wilkinson, set up the skin cancer network – a group of the best medical experts pooling their knowledge and also seeking donations from philanthropists. Gordon Merchant, founder of the Billabong surf and skate wear empire, has already signed up, giving millions to the cause through the Merchant Foundation. “We have about half of what we need but I don’t want to start until I know I can finish,” Professor Frazer said.