Ian Frazer discusses the cervical cancer vaccine, 2008

Transcript of the interview

We were working to develop ways of making the virus that causes cervical cancer in the laboratory and one part of that process was to try to build the shell of the virus in the lab. We had to do that because you can't grow this virus like you can grow most viruses in the lab, so we had to use DNA technology to trick cells into making the building blocks of the virus. The breakthrough, I guess, was when we found a way of getting that to happen in such a way that the building blocks assembled themselves into the virus. That was rather unexpected. Indeed it might not have happened at all. There was no guarantee it would. But when it did actually happen, we realised not only had we a way of making the virus for our experiments, but we also had the basis for a vaccine, which is not actually quite what we set out to do, but was what we ended up discovering. And because it was possible to get the building blocks to assemble themselves in the test tube, it was therefore possible to get enough material on a commercial scale to actually make a vaccine that could be used worldwide because if we'd had to do it some very hard way in the lab, you know if it didn't self-assemble, then it would have been possible perhaps to make the virus, but certainly not possible to make enough of it to make a vaccine with. That work was done in 1990 by my colleague, the late Dr Jian Zhou and myself, and he and I then took it a little further in the laboratory to show that the material that we'd made would behave like a vaccine when we put it into experimental animals, and then we passed it on to a commercial company, CSL, which is an Australian biotech company, who in turn passed it on to two big international firms, pharmaceutical companies, which put the whole thing through clinical trials involving about 60,000 women, 2,000 scientists and a billion dollars over the course of 15 years to prove that the vaccine could actually work to prevent the infection that causes cervical cancer.