Q&A: Pierre Van Damme on testing for a new HPV vaccine

Summary

Pierre Van Damme is a vaccinology professor at Antwerp University, which is leading a research project to develop a vaccine against the human papillomavirus

Volunteers sought

The Vaccine & Infectious Disease Institute research centre in Antwerp is looking for women between the ages of 25 and 50 to take part in a study examining the effectiveness of a new vaccine against the human papillomavirus.

What exactly is the human papillomavirus?
It’s a sexually transmittable virus that causes several cancers, with cervical cancer being the most prevalent. The virus causes chronic infections in some women that can later cause cancer.

Do all women with the virus eventually develop cancer?
No, that would cause panic all over Europe! The virus is omnipresent. About 70 to 80% of all women become infected during their lives. In 1% of them, the virus develops into cervical cancer. Most women are capable of getting rid of the virus by means of their own immune system. But we don’t know why some women do and some don’t.

What is the difference between the experimental vaccine and the vaccine that is already being administered to girls when they’re 12?
The vaccine the girls get is administered before they become sexually active. It’s preventive. The vaccine we’re testing now is the first therapeutic vaccine against the virus. It is meant to cure women who already carry the virus.

At what stage is the vaccine now?
The first stage of the research was carried out here in Antwerp. We tested the vaccine on women who were infected but did not have any lesions on the cervix. The results were promising. Now, in the second stage, it is being tested on larger groups of women in research centres around Europe. In the third phase of the research, we will test the effectiveness of the vaccine for women who already have lesions on the cervix, but in a very early stage. We don’t know yet if the vaccine is strong enough to cure them as well.

So this is an international research project?
This institute is the lead research centre, the principal investigator. The vaccine itself is being developed by Genticel, a French biotech company. We are carrying out the research for them. The choice for Antwerp might have to do with Genticel’s president; he’s Belgian. In any case, we expect a vaccine to be on the market in two to three years.