Cancer vaccine: researchers set to take on multinationals

Special Correspondent

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Bio-medical researchers working on a vaccine for cervical cancer are all set to take on multinationals. The working group on cervical cancer, under the Department of Biotechnology, has demonstrated the antigen required for the vaccine that could be cost effective. Talks for collaboration are on with major Indian biotech for the mass production of the vaccine prototype.

A review meeting of the working group held in Thiruvananthapuram recently decided to go ahead with the development of the vaccine. The meeting, attended by Bindu Dey, Director, Biotechnology Department of the Union Government, and doctors from 10 leading research centres in India, decided to take up the challenge to produce both prophylactic and therapeutic vaccines for human papillomavirus (HPV), the causative agent for at least 95 per cent of cervical cancers.

No clinical trials

At present, two vaccines, "Gardasil", manufactured by Merck and "Cervaric" by Glaxo Smithkline (GSK) are in clinical trials. Both the vaccines are prophylactic and take slightly different approaches, according to researchers. "Cervarix" uses only two strains of HPV, while "Gardasil" is a quadrivalent vaccine. No clinical trials have been carried out in India where the Working Group's epidemiological studies have suggested prevalence of further variants.

According to Dr. Radhakrishna Pillai, Director of Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology and coordinator of the Working Group, cervical cancer remains an important health problem worldwide, particularly in areas without screening programmes. India, which has one sixth of the world's population, shoulders one third of the world's cervical cancer burden. Human papillomavirus has been recognised as the causative agent for at least 95 per cent of cervical cancers. It is considered responsible for 8 per cent of anal cancers, 50 per cent tumours of the vulva, vagina and penis, 20 per cent oro-pharyngeal cancer, especially tonsil cancer and 10 per cent of laringo esophageal tumours.

Dr. Pillai says that the recognition of HPV as a causative agent for cervical cancers has opened up opportunities in preventive and therapeutic vaccinations. A timely development and large-scale administration of safe and effective HPV vaccines could make a huge difference for millions of young and not so young people in the years to come. If proven clinically effective, it would have a profound impact on the incidence of cervical cancer especially in the areas of the world without screening programmes, according to Dr. Pillai.

In a country like India, the cost of vaccine would be a critical issue as it could hardly afford to do a once-in-a-life time screening by cervical smear for every women over 40, Dr Pillai says.

According to the Working Group, the Indian vaccine would cost considerably less than those produced by multinationals. The Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology is planning to work on developing a combined prophylactic and therapeutic vaccine using transgenic plants to produce fusion protein.

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