When the first vaccine against cervical cancer was administered in Australia in 2006, it was a momentous event for women around the world.
For Professor Ian Frazer, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was the biggest accomplishment so far in a career dedicated to translating science into new-generation medicine.
‘I started working in autoimmunity and wanted to do something to sort out the problems of autoimmune disease, and then moved from there to viruses and from there to vaccines,’ he says.
‘All the way along, it was always focused on something to do with making patients’ lives better.’
Professor Frazer, CEO and Director of Research of Queensland’s Translational Research Institute (TRI) and former director of the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute (UQDI), led the team that developed the HPV vaccine. The breakthrough came in 1990–91, when Ian and colleague Dr Jian Zhou developed the technology for the vaccine, which protects women against varieties of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer.
Turning the science into a vaccine took another 15 years of hard work by scientists, clinicians and industrial partners.
Since 2006, more than 23 million people have been vaccinated in more than 70 countries. The HPV vaccine has already contributed to a decrease in pre-cancerous cervical lesions in young women. Starting in 2013, Australian schoolboys will also be eligible for the vaccine free of charge, part of a strategy to boost women’s health and to protect men from a range of cancers.
Since developing the HPV vaccine, Ian has collected a wide array of honours, including the Australian of the Year award in 2006. He says that a high-profile award benefits the entire scientific community in Australia, ‘because it gives us a voice and a chance to talk to the public’.
Ian has seized those opportunities, spending much of his time promoting science in the community and working with charities such as the Cancer Council of Australia. He is chairman of the Australian Cancer Research Foundation’s Medical Research Advisory Committee and has advised the World Health Organization and the Gates Foundation on papillomavirus vaccines.
Now heading up TRI, Ian oversees a unique joint venture between four medical research institutes: UQDI, Mater Medical Research Institute, Queensland University of Technology Institute for Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI) and Princess Alexandra Hospital Centres for Health Research, along with health partner, DSM Biologics.
The Institute’s ‘bench to bedside’ turnkey model will enable collaborative research in which potential new treatments can be developed, tested and translated into clinical practice by providing access to on-site product manufacture and accredited clinical trial facilities.
In 2012, Ian was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), the highest civic honour in Australia. Ian’s award honoured his eminent service to medical research, particularly through his leadership roles in the discovery of the human papilloma virus vaccine and its role in preventing cervical cancer, and higher education and his contribution to charitable organisations.