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Researchers: Vaccine may prevent liver cancer

The hepatitis B vaccine may protect against liver cancer in humans   
December 8, 1997
Web posted at: 8:17 p.m. EST (0117 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Medical researchers have long dreamed of finding a way to prevent cancer.

Now, a study from Georgetown University indicates that vaccinating an infant against the hepatitis B virus may provide a lifetime of protection from liver cancer, most cases of which are caused by the virus.

"Hepatitis B virus vaccine will be the first effective vaccine against a cancer, a major cancer for man, liver cancer," said John Gerin of Georgetown University Medical Center.

Presented Monday at a Washington, D.C., meeting. the findings were the result of research at Georgetown's Albert Sabin Vaccine Institute, where scientists studied a hepatitis-like disease in woodchucks for eight years and concluded that the vaccine was effective in preventing liver cancer.

vxtreme CNN's Jeff Levine reports

Woodchucks are well-suited to the study of hepatitis because they develop the disease in only three years, compared to 60 years in humans.

"The implication is that the same strategy in man will be successful," Gerin said.

Liver cancer is the No. 1 cancer worldwide.

"We don't see it that much in the United States ... but around the world it is the single leading cause of cancer," said Dr. James Lewis of Georgetown University Medical Center. Lewis said between 8,000 and 10,000 cases are reported in the United States each year.


The researchers also found that anti-viral drugs can contain the disease in those already infected with hepatitis B and prevent it from becoming cancerous -- at least in animals.

That will be important when applied to humans, because the tumor caused by hepatitis B, known as hepatocellular carcinoma, is very difficult to treat. Even a liver transplant is not effective against it.

Scientists believe that someday shots could protect people from all the cancers caused by viruses, estimated at about 10 percent of all cancers.

As for the hepatitis B vaccine, Gerin said it will probably take 30 to 40 years of study to find out conclusively if it works in humans as it worked for the woodchucks in the study.

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants get the three-shot inoculation against hepatitis.

Medical Correspondent Jeff Levine contributed to this report.


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