Pioneering HPV Vaccine Researcher Visits Wake Forest Baptist

March 27, 2019

One of the world’s leading cancer researchers and deputy director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) described Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Comprehensive Cancer Center as uniquely positioned to make an impact in cancer care and research.

“I would say, it’s the right size,” said Douglas R. Lowy, MD, whose research helped create a highly effective vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV). “It’s big enough to be a Comprehensive Cancer Center, but it’s small enough to be nimble, for people to know each other and to work together.”

The NCI designates select cancer centers in America as “Comprehensive” for meeting the highest possible standards for patient care and research. Wake Forest Baptist is the only NCI-designated Cancer Center in western North Carolina and the highest ranked in the state in the most recent rankings compiled by U.S. News & World Report.

Lowy visited Wake Forest Baptist Health to deliver the 12th annual Deal Lecture on March 8. He also met with members of the community in a forum at Graylyn International Conference Center, with faculty and students at Wake Forest School of Medicine, and with researchers at the Comprehensive Cancer Center.

He discussed the work that led to the HPV vaccine and shared observations from his career of more than 40 years.

Lowy also serves as chief of the Laboratory of Cellular Oncology in the NCI’s Center for Cancer Research and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine. His laboratory, in close collaboration with John T. Schiller, PhD, worked to develop and test the preventive virus-like, particle-based HPV vaccines that are now used in three vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for HPV.

“The HPV vaccine makes it possible for the first time to think about primary prevention of all the different cancers that are caused by human papillomavirus infection,” Lowy said. “Luckily, the vaccine works very well, and it’s highly protective.”

Since 2006, when the first of those vaccines was licensed, the vaccine has proven particularly effective in preventing development of cervical cancer as well as other cancers associated with HPV infection.

Currently, the vaccine is delivered through multiple doses, and researchers are working to find ways for one dose of the vaccine to produce the same long-term protection. Having a single dose could be transformative, particularly in the developing world, where cervical and other HPV-associated cancers are “a very big problem.”

“There certainly has been underutilization of the vaccine in the United States, but every year, there is an increase of 3 or 4 percent of uptake,” he said. “My guess is in the next few years, we will be over 70 percent of uptake and at full vaccination, especially if one dose turns out to work. It not only will save the United States hundreds of millions of dollars every year, but the implementation should go up substantially because it’s far easier to give just one than to give several doses.”

Lowy’s work with Schiller spans more than 30 years, and they have shared several awards, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama in 2014 and the 2017 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, which is considered the country’s most prestigious honor for biomedical research.

“It’s been a real cooperative venture,” Lowy said. “We’ve really done all of this together. John and I were very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Research is not done by individuals or by two people; it’s done by a group, really a community.”

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