Immunizing against skin cancer: Novel vaccine could be on the horizon

January 1, 2009

Brisbane, Australia Early results of animal studies suggest that a vaccine for some types of skin cancer in humans may be available in five to 10 years, according to Ian Frazer, M.D., an Australian scientist who helped develop the Gardasil (Merck) vaccine for cervical cancer.

Key Points

Other industry players believe that the benefits of such a vaccine would be limited.

Dr. Frazer says significant advances in control of disease are being made through research. The potential vaccine would target squamous cell carcinoma by singling out papillomavirus, the common infection that can turn abnormal cells into cancerous cells.

Animal models

Dr. Frazer and his team, including Graham Leggatt, Ph.D.; Xiaosong Liu, M.D., Ph.D.; Jie Zhong, M.D.; Steve Mattarollo; Rachel De Kluyver and Joe Zhou, found that the skin has natural defenses that switch off killer T cells (the cells that can be produced by vaccination that are designed to get rid of "bad" skin cells).

"We've found a number of ways to overcome these blocks and let the immune system work. We now want to test vaccines based on this knowledge in clinical trials, to find out whether we can develop vaccines that could be used to treat people at risk of skin cancer," he says.

Papillomavirus

Dr. Frazer says they are looking closely at papillomavirus, a virus he has studied while working on the HPV vaccine for cervical cancer.

"We're particularly interested in the skin cancers caused by papillomavirus - we've got vaccines to prevent papillomavirus infection, but no vaccines to treat existing infections with these viruses at the moment, and that's what we're working to produce," Dr. Frazer tells Dermatology Times.

"Skin cancer is a major public health problem, and it is largely a consequence of sun damage to the skin. We know from a recent survey undertaken by the Cancer Council Australia that too many teenagers are still getting burnt in the sun and exposing themselves to the risk of developing skin cancers, including the most serious kind, melanoma," says Professor Frazer, director of the Diamantina Institute, University of Queensland, Australia.