Balzan Prize 2008 for Preventive Medicine, Including Vaccination
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 21.11.2008
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am greatly honoured, and personally delighted, to be the recipient of a Balzan prize in 2008. Most medical researchers undertake research because it is interesting, challenging, and fun. However many also do it because the results of their work can contribute to tangible benefits for the health of people across the world. Seeing the cervical cancer vaccines that I and my colleagues have helped develop in use to prevent a cancer is a huge thrill for me. The community trusts us with the resources we as researchers need to deliver on the promise of medical research. I believe my award highlights and celebrates the significant public health benefit that will flow from the research that has led to these vaccines.
All medical research is collaborative. Each new finding, each new drug or treatment, builds on the work of those who have gone before, in this case particularly those father figures of papillomavirus research who drew the connection between papillomavirus infection and cancer, including Peyton Rous, a past nobel laureate, Harald Zur Hausen, honoured this year with the Nobel Prize, and Gerard Orth. Each new discovery also relies on the work of many others to ensure it is properly developed and tested, indeed too many others to mention by name on this occasion, though I see myself as recipient on their behalf. This makes the Balzan prize particularly appealing. The high profile of the prize will raise awareness of the vaccine, and may help to ensure its rapid deployment in the countries in the developing world where it is needed most. The funding accompanying the prize will help to ensure that further research in vaccines can be undertaken. Hopefully, this will lead to new and significant research outcomes, in the war to control infectious disease and cancer through immunisation.
One of many friends and colleagues, who over the years have helped me in my research, deserves special mention today, not least because he is no longer here with us to receive the public acknowledgement that would surely have been his to share. Dr Jian Zhou, who worked with me from 1990 to 1995 and again from 1998 until his untimely death, was an equal partner in much of the work on HPV vaccine development and in particular in the development of the technology which lead to the vaccines we are here to celebrate today. His friendship and advice are greatly missed.
My research program on papillomavirus is now focussed on vaccines that can be used to cure existing infection with cancer causing viruses. Pleasingly, we have some positive signs from our clinical trials that these new generation vaccines may be of some therapeutic benefit. The specification of the Prize Foundation that the prize money should be used to benefit the career of an up and coming scientist ensures that the whole community will benefit from the award, though I feel a considerable responsibility to ensure that I provide a good opportunity and good mentorship for my selected protégée. I would hope to encourage a clinician scientist to work on further vaccines to help prevent more of the 20% of cancers that are attributable to infections.
I thank the awards committee for bestowing this singular and unexpected honour on me, and for the recognition granted to the work that has led to the first vaccine designed specifically to help reduce the global burden of cancer.