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[ATLANTA] Researchers have reported new data on the effectiveness of vaccines against the main cause of fatal cancer in women in developing nations. A multi-million dollar project has been launched to study how to introduce the vaccines in such countries.

The announcements were made this week (4 and 5 June) at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Atlanta, United States.

Half a million new cases of cervical cancer occur each year, and more than four out of five are in developing nations where the lack of screening means precancerous lesions are rarely detected and treated in time.

Two vaccines have recently been shown to be close to 100 per cent effective at protecting against infection with human papilloma virus (HPV) — the cause of most cervical cancers (see The HPV vaccine: a long wait for the developing world?).

Data presented at this week's meeting show that Gardasil, made by Merck, also gave 100 per cent protection against the development of vaginal and vulval cancers, both of which are associated with HPV.

While these are less common than cervical cancer, their surgical management is extremely challenging and can be disfiguring.

"These results suggest that this vaccine may indeed prevent vulvar and vaginal cancer," said Jorma Paavonen from the University of Helsinki, Finland, presenting the results. "This represents additional health benefits that can be gained by the HPV vaccine."

The second vaccine, GlaxoSmithKline's Cervarix, was shown to be 100 per cent effective at generating an antibody response in women aged 26–55 years.

"These are important data as older women remain at significant risk of acquiring infections with cancer-causing HPV types," said the study's lead author, Tino Schwarz of Stiftung Juliusspital Wuerzburg in Germany.

On Monday (5 June) the global health charity PATH launched a five-year research project that will gather data in India, Peru, Uganda and Vietnam. The information will help developing nations make informed decisions about how to introduce the vaccines.

Both GlaxoSmithKline and Merck are partnering in this effort, which is being funded by a US$27.8 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"Local health systems don't support preventive care like routine pap smears," said PATH program director Jacqueline Sherris. "Vaccines are the best hope for lowering the death toll of this disease in the long run."

Gardasil is expected to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration this week, and Cervarix has been submitted for approval in Europe.