BOSTON (AP) -- A cervical cancer study with dramatic results is fanning enthusiasm that the disease can someday be routed with the same kind of weapon that turned back diseases like smallpox and polio: a vaccine.
A cervical cancer vaccine worked on 100 percent of the women who took injections in its first big trial.
"If the promise implicit in the study ... is realized, we could, in our lifetime, see the gradual but progressive dismantling to the barriers to preventing cervical cancer," said Dr. Christopher Crum, a pathologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
It remains unclear how long the protection might last. Even so, researchers say a vaccine could reach the market within five years or so.
The findings were published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. The issue also carries separate research findings showing potential value in an experimental vaccine for genital herpes.
Vaccines work by teaching the body's immune defenses to recognize invading viruses and bacteria. Most types of cancer, by contrast, are blamed largely on genetic mutations and environmental factors. However, virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by a sexually transmitted virus -- the human papilloma virus.
A vaccine for cervical cancer is urgently being sought because the disease strikes about 450,000 women worldwide each year, killing about half. It is the leading cancer killer of women in the developing world. In the United States, where Pap tests are widely used for screening, it develops in about 15,000 women annually and kills about a third.
The new vaccine, aimed at the viral strain Type 16, responsible for about half the cases of cervical cancer, was tested on women ages 16 to 23 at 16 sites around the country in a study led by Merck & Co. and the University of Washington. Merck developed the vaccine and funded the research. The women were watched on average for almost a year and a half.
Of 768 women who got vaccine injections, none showed Type 16 infections or precancerous tissue. Of 765 who took dummy injections, 41 came down with persistent infections, and nine developed precancerous tissue.
Inoculated women built up almost 60 times the concentration of virus-fighting antibodies seen in naturally infected women.
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