FDA to Review Vaccine for Cancer-Causing Virus On Thursday, an expert panel will tell the FDA whether a new vaccine against the human papilloma virus is ready to use. HPV can be sexually transmitted and can cause cervical cancer. It affects about 10,000 American women a year, and it kills about 3,700.
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FDA to Review Vaccine for Cancer-Causing Virus

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FDA to Review Vaccine for Cancer-Causing Virus

FDA to Review Vaccine for Cancer-Causing Virus

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

In Your Health this morning we'll explain why multivitamins may not protect you as much advertised and also consider whether a vaccine can. The vaccine first. It is designed to stop human papilloma viruses, which cause cervical cancer. Today an expert panelist scheduled to tell the Food and Drug Administration if the new vaccine is ready to use. Here is NPR's Joanne Silberner.


Dr. Connie Trimble of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is especially anxious to see a vaccine approved. She deals with women in the early and late stages of cervical cancer.

Dr. CONNIE TRIMBLE (School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University): It's amazing from a scientific standpoint that here is a cancer where we know the cause and we know how to screen for it. We know how to treat early stage disease. And it's still the second leading cancer killer of women worldwide.

SILBERNER: Cervical cancer is not as widespread in the U.S. as in other parts of the world with poor medical care, but it still hits 10,000 American women a year and kills about 3,700. That's why Trimble and other doctors are so interested in prevention rather than catching the cancer in its early stage through a virus test or a Pap smear.

Dr. TRIMBLE: If you have an abnormal Pap smear, you've got to come see somebody like me. People would rather go to the dentist. I mean you have to have a special kind of exam. It's scary. It's uncomfortable. And you have to have a biopsy.

SILBERNER: Today, an advisory committee to the FDA will consider data from tests of an experimental vaccine made by Merck that targets four of the most carcinogenic forms of the human papilloma virus, or HPV. Tests of the vaccine showed that it's very effective with few if any side effects, though the agency is asking the committee to consider whether knocking out four HPV viruses could leave room for others in the same family of viruses to grow.

The vaccine has a lot of support from people like Christopher Crum, a pathologist with Brigham and Women's Hospital. But he says it won't be the immediate end for Pap smears and virus tests.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER CRUM (Pathologist, Brigham and Women's Hospital): Despite the fact that these vaccines are going to be effective, they are not going to completely eradicate the risk of cervical cancer.

SILBERNER: More than a dozen types of HPV are linked to cervical cancer. The four in this vaccine are estimated to cause almost 70 percent of the cases. It's not clear yet how long the vaccine will last. It's only been tested for five years.

Another question, whether to vaccinate a group of people who don't get cervical cancer, men, since this is a sexually transmitted virus.

Dr. CRUM: Theoretically, if you were to vaccinate men, you would protect their sexual partners, and I think that's true. But I don't know whether or not one can guarantee that you'll protect the woman from disease by just vaccinating the man.

SILBERNER: There is a small advantage for men and boys. The vaccine protects against genital warts and rare cases of penile cancer. If the FDA approves the vaccine, it may decide not only who should get it, but at what age it should be taken. Connie Trimble of Hopkins thinks children should get it.

Dr. TRIMBLE: It would have the most effect if we were able to vaccinate kids before they became sexually active, so, you know, 10-year-olds.

SILBERNER: There's no real opposition to this vaccine from groups that advocate abstinence until marriage. Dr. Gary Rose of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which advises conservative groups on medical issues, says most of those groups support it, and he recommends it be given to the nine to 12-year-old age group when they come in for other vaccines.

Dr. GARY ROSE (Medical Institute for Sexual Health): We believe that this is going to be very important in terms of prevention. The possibility of HPV infection remains from sexual assault, including date rape, and there's always the possibility that young persons may marry someone who has previously been exposed to it and still carrying the virus.

SILBERNER: The Family Research Council says the only thing they're against is making the vaccine mandatory. After the FDA hears from its advisory committee today, it has until June 9 to decide whether to approve the vaccine. Manufacturer Merck isn't saying how much it would charge for the vaccine. Company observers predict it will be several hundred dollars for the three shot series.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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