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Encouraging results for cervical cancer vaccine

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Dr. Kevin Ault

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(CNN) -- Researchers with Merck & Co. report they have been successful at blocking viruses that cause cervical cancer and lesions that become cancerous. About 20 million Americans are living with the virus.

"American Morning" anchor Soledad O'Brien talked with Dr. Kevin Ault of Emory University, who was the clinical researcher of the study.

O'Brien: We're talking about some 20 million people, I think, is the number affected globally by HPV, which is -- I'm going to pronounce this wrong. But human papillomavirus, is that right?

Ault: That is correct.

O'Brien: I mean, that's the virus -- I mean, gross name, genital warts. But it's what causes, really, cervical cancer, right? Those changes are what causes cervical cancer. So how would the vaccine work?

Ault: Well, there are two diseases, as you alluded to in your opening comments. One is genital warts, which is caused by HPV 6 and 11. These viruses are numbered; 16 and 18 are associated with about 70 percent of cervical cancer. What we found in our abstract that's going to be presented at the Infectious Disease Society of America tomorrow is that we prevented 100 percent of precancerous changes in the women that received the vaccine. And this is a larger trial than what's been published before and has more encouraging results.

O'Brien: Well, the vaccine only works in the certain strains that are actually the strains that are correlated to cancer.

Ault: The particular data that we are presenting is for 16 and 18, as far as preventing cancer, so yes. It looks like there is type-specific immunity. There are other types that make up a small percentage of these precancerous changes; abnormal pap smears and cervical cancer, you're correct.

O'Brien: And so when we say that the vaccine is effective for 70 percent of the cervical cancers, it's not effective in the cancers that don't necessarily -- there's 30 percent of which -- of those cancers that it's not really working on, is that right?

Ault: You're correct. There are 30 percent that are not covered. You could speculate that in a second generation of vaccines, you may be able to treat or prevent those with further advances in that. But this particular research is really focused on those four types that I mentioned.

O'Brien: Oh, great. Thank you for clarifying. Because it's kind of complicated. Now how would the vaccine work? I mean, who -- would you get it at birth, like you get a lot of your vaccines? Would you get it when you're older?

Ault: It is complicated. And most of the research is very new. So it's nice to have this opportunity to talk about it. So the way we did the study was to vaccinate young women and adolescent women. And I think that's probably the appropriate age group for this vaccine. As you may know, there have been some other vaccines that have been approved recently for the adolescent age group. A meningococcal vaccine and a proteases booster vaccine. There are other opportunities in an age group of young women to give that vaccine.

O'Brien: For the 20 million or so people globally who have HPV, does a vaccine work for them sort of after the fact?

Ault: Well, the 20 million is only United States data. You could get up; into hundreds of millions, if you want to talk about global HPV infections. And I think the short answer is no. There's no vaccine that is designed to treat disease that's already established. This is really meant to be a preventative or a prophylactic vaccine. And that's the reason we would give it to adolescents in the future.

O'Brien: And clearly, it's a huge problem. I didn't realize that 20 million was just here in the United States.

Ault: Just the United States.

O'Brien: Does that mean no more pap smears? I mean, women get pap smears, of course, to figure out if you've got changes in those cells in the cervix, to make sure those aren't cells that are going to become cancerous.

Ault: I am a gynecologist and that question comes up all the time. I think the point to make is that we are talking about maybe a generation or two of women to receive this vaccine before we get to no more pap smears. I guess the best example I could give you would be German measles. You may know that rubella or German measles is associated with birth defects. That vaccine became available in the late '60s in the United States, and it was just last year that our colleagues at the CDC reported that there were no cases of congenital rubella in the United States. So, really, we would have to have a long time before we get to that point.

O'Brien: Well, it's a giant study and some really great news. Thanks for talking with us.

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