Effective weapon against cervical cancer: Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou named European Inventor Award 2015 finalists

21 Apr
  • European Patent Office (EPO) honours Australian immunologist Ian Frazer and the late Chinese cancer researcher Jian Zhou for developing world’s first cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil
  • Now used in 120 countries and administered more than 125 million times so far
  • EPO President Battistelli: “Their invention has saved countless lives and will continue to protect many women from this devastating form of cancer in future.”


Munich/ Brisbane, 21 April 2015 – Every year more than 530,000 women worldwide receive the diagnosis of cervical cancer. It the second most common type of cancer in women, and one of the deadliest (about 275,000 women died from cervical cancer in 2013 alone, according to the World Health Organization). But there is hope: Australian immunologist Ian Frazer and his late Chinese colleague Jian Zhou, who died in 1999, developed a vaccine against cervical cancer. The method is ground-breaking because it focuses on prevention, which can be life-saving, in particular for women without regular access to healthcare.

For this achievement, Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou today have been named finalists for the European Inventor Award 2015 in the category “Non-European Countries”.

“Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou are pioneers of modern medicine,” said EPO President Benoȋt Battistelli announcing the finalists.

“In their fight against cervical cancer, they focused on the cause rather than on the symptoms of the disease. Developing a vaccine has saved countless lives and also saved many women from a protracted and painful course of treatment, involving surgery and chemotherapy.”

Vaccine offers full protection against cervical cancer

Scottish-born Ian Frazer based his ground-breaking invention on the research of the German physician and Nobel Prize Winner Harald zur Hausen. For a long time, the medical world believed the herpes virus caused cervical cancer. In 1976, it caused a sensation when Dr zur

Hausen first mentioned the human papillomavirus (HPV) as playing a role in cervical cancer. The sexually-transmitted virus infects the skin and mucosal tissues, which in the worst case can cause cervical cancer. In the early 1980s, the German virologist then identified the so-called “high-risk” types of HPV, mainly HPV 16 and HPV 18, as the main cause behind more than 70 percent of all cervical cancers, as well as a number of other types of cancer in both women and men.

Ian Frazer put these findings at the centre of his own research. As early as 1985, having emigrated to Australia, he set up the world’s first research group to concentrate solely on developing a vaccine against cervical cancer. However, it proved impossible to grow the HPV virus in the laboratory, making a vaccine based on live viral elements unfeasible.

After many years of experimenting and various setbacks, Ian Frazer and the Cambridge immunologist and gene specialist Jian Zhou cloned HPV surface proteins onto a different virus that served as a template. The human immune system reacts to these harmless virus-like particles and forms antibodies, thereby building immunity. The vaccine derived from this offers full protection from the dangerous HPV types 16 and 18.

From these first successes, it took almost 15 years until the vaccine was ready for market. In 1991, working at the University of Queensland, Frazer and Zhou filed a patent application for the missing link between the genuine virus and its artificially produced “representative”. This was a milestone achievement for the now-widely available HPV vaccines.  In 1995, Frazer and Zhou started cooperating with US pharmaceutical company Merck & Co to develop the vaccine, called Gardasil. After three years of testing, the scientists completed the first trials on humans in 1998 with outstanding results. A cycle of three injections offers full protection against HPV for up to five years. After Jian Zhou’s unexpected death in 1999 due to an illness at the age of 42, Ian Frazer continued their joint work until the vaccine was ready for market.

Frazer was the inaugural CEO and Director of Research at the Translational Research Institute, where he continues researching therapeutic vaccines for patients already infected with HPV. The vaccines are currently in clinical testing. The Institute came about because of his vision and his determination to assist other researchers to translate their discoveries into health benefits for the world.

HPV vaccine becomes standard

In 2006, Gardasil was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The vaccine is now used in 121 countries and has been administered more than 125 million times. In 2013, Gardasil reached total worldwide sales of about EUR 1.49 billion. In December 2014, the FDA approved Gardasil’s follow-up vaccine which is designed to protect against nine different strains of HPV and sales are expected to reach about EUR 1.55 billion

by 2018. This vaccine received preliminary approval in Europe at the end of March 2015. UK pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline produces another widely-used cervical cancer vaccine, Cervarix, based on Frazer’s and Zhou’s method. The WHO as well as public health agencies in Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States now recommend vaccination against HPV for young women aged 9 to 25. Most countries in the developed world now have government-funded school or community-based public health programs targeting 12-14 year old girls. Australia also has a public health program for boys, as HPV also causes some cancers in men.

Affordable immunisation protection for developing countries

In the western world, cervical cancer can be treated if diagnosed in good time, and, as a consequence, few women die from it. According to the WHO about 85 percent of all deaths from cervical cancer occur in low or middle-income countries – the University of Queensland has therefore waived royalties on Gardasil sales in 72 developing countries. The vaccine signifies a vital step forward in the fight against cancer, in particular for regions without basic healthcare and no preventive diagnostic procedures.

Press contacts:

In Brisbane, Australia: Cicero / Shepard Fox Communications

Kathryn Britt   Tel.: 0414 661 616 or 07 3716 0756   kathryn@cicero.net.au

European Patent Office

Mr Rainer Osterwalder Press Spokesperson Tel: +49 (0)89 2399-1820 Mobile: +49 (0)163 8399527 rosterwalder@epo.org

About the European Inventor Award

Launched in 2006, the European Inventor Award is presented annually by the European Patent Office. The award honours inventive individuals and teams whose pioneering work provides answers to the challenges of our age and thereby contributes to social progress, economic growth and prosperity. Fifteen finalists and, subsequently, the winners are chosen from among the nominees by a high-profile international jury. The award is presented in five categories: Industry, Research, Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), Non-European countries, and Lifetime achievement.

About the EPO

With more than 7,000 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Its headquarters are in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna. The EPO was founded to strengthen co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO’s centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in the 38 member states of the European Patent Organisation. The EPO is also the world’s leading authority in patent information and patent searching.

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