A vaccine that targets a human wart virus completely prevented early-stage cervical cancer and precancerous lesions in women caused by the two most common forms of the virus, the maker Merck & Co has said.
"This trial confirms that a vaccine can give young women a high level of protection from developing precancerous lesions and early cervical cancers," said Laura Koutsky, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, who led the study.
The ability to prevent cervical cancers, at least for the short term, was shown in a late-stage trial sponsored by the U.S. drug maker. It included more than 12,000 women from 13 countries, aged 16 to 26, who were not infected with either of the virus types when the trial began.
The two forms of sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, types 16 and 18, are responsible for an estimated 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and are the targets of Merck's Gardasil vaccine. Such cancers kill about 300,000 women worldwide each year, Merck said, reports Reuters.
Doctors expect the vaccine to be routinely offered to girls -- and boys, too, because they can spread the virus to their partners -- before they become sexually active, though the practice is certain to run into opposition from conservatives and religious groups.
"I see this as a phenomenal breakthrough," said Dr. Gloria Bachmann, director of the Women's Health Institute at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J.
Worldwide, cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers among women.
About 20 million Americans have some form of HPV, which in addition to cervical cancer can cause painful genital warts.
"(Gardasil) offers promise for the second most common cancer in the U.S. Ten thousand people will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2005; 3,000 will die of it in the U.S. That's huge," said Dr. Farrukh Kureishy of Clinton Internal Medicine.
Kureishy said he has patients in their 20s with cervical cancer.
"It would be great if we had a vaccine that could eradicate something like that," he said.
The genetically engineered vaccine prevents cervical cancer by blocking infection from the two strains of HPV that cause 70 percent of all cases of the disease.
The study included 10,559 sexually active women ages 16 to 26 in the United States and 12 other countries who were not infected with either of the two virus strains, called HPV 16 and 18, informs Pantagraph.
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