16 November 2008

Ladies and gentlemen

I’m Ian Frazer, Director of the Diamantina Institute at The University of Queensland. I’ll make a short announcement, and then will be happy to take questions.

This is national Skin Cancer Action week,

Skin cancer is a major public health problem.

Skin cancers are largely a consequence of sun damage to the skin.

We know from a recent survey undertaken by the Cancer Council Australia that too many teenagers are still getting burnt in the sun, and exposing themselves to the risk of developing skin cancers, including the most serious kind, melanoma.

We also know that medical research is important for finding solutions to health problems, and this week at the Australian Health and Medical Research Conference in Brisbane you will be able to hear several reports about significant advances in control of disease through research.

Tomorrow, as part of this conference, I’ll be talking about my group’s work, which aims to understand what is needed to use immunisation successfully to get rid of “problem” skin cells – cells that have turned cancerous or cells persistently infected with viruses such as papillomavirus that can cause skin cancer.

Many of my team (Graham Leggatt, Xiaosong Liu, Jie Zhong, Steve Mattarollo, Rachel De Kluyver, Joe Zhou) have stories to tell about this research.

What we’ve learnt together, through the study of animal models, is that the skin has natural defences which switch off killer T cells (the cells we can produce by vaccination that are designed to get rid of “bad” skin cells). We’ve also found a number of ways to overcome these blocks and let the immune system work.

We now want to test vaccines based on this knowledge in clinical trials, to find out whether we can develop vaccines that could be used to treat people at risk of skin cancer. We’re particularly interested in the skin cancers caused by papillomavirus – we’ve vaccines to prevent papillomavirus infection, but no vaccines to treat existing infections with these viruses at the moment, and that’s what we’re working to produce.

These trials should get under way within a year. There will however be no shortcutting the development phase for such vaccines and I’d remind you that it was 10 years from the first clinical trials of HPV preventative vaccines till we had the vaccines available.

So for the foreseeable future, “slip slop slap seek and slide” is still the major take home message for skin cancer prevention. In the future, just as the cervical cancer vaccine will complement the cervical cancer screening program, I hope that a skin cancer vaccine will be available to help in the prevention of skin cancer, but we’ll still need to stay out of the sun.

Ian Frazer 16th November 2008