2014 World Cancer Day – Interview with Nobel Laureate Harald zur Hausen

World Cancer Day is celebrated on February 4th every year to raise awareness and education about cancer, and pressing governments and individuals across the world to take action against the disease.

According to WHO, 7.6 million people worldwide died from cancer in 2008, and deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue rising, with an estimated 13.1 million deaths in 2030.

The good news is that cancer can be reduced and controlled by implementing evidence-based strategies for prevention, early detection and management of patients. Many cancers have a high chance of cure if detected early and treated adequately.

Everyone can support World Cancer Day and get involved in a variety of ways. Check out here, what you can do to mark the Day.

At PeerJ, we invited Professor Harald zur Hausen to talk about his long-term involvement in the field.

Prof. zur Hausen is Professor emeritus at the German Cancer Research Center. He received the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer. His research made it possible to develop a vaccine against the second most common cancer in women, with an estimated 530,000 new cases every year. It is now approved in over 100 countries and integrated into the immunization programs of more than 40 countries.

Prof. zur Hausen is also a member of the PeerJ Academic Advisory Board.

PJ: How did you become interested in the causation of specific human cancers by infectious agents?

HzH: This interest dates back to my student times when I realized that bacteria can become latently infected by bacteriophages and may change their properties. This raised the suspicion that cancer might originate from a similar type of mechanism and stimulated my interest in infection and cancer.

PJ: What are human papillomaviruses (HPV), and what kinds of cancer are related to HPV infection?

HzH: Human papillomaviruses are small DNA viruses belonging to a very heterogeneous family of viruses. We do know more than 160 genotypes infecting humans. There are only a few specific types related to cancer. Cervical cancer is of primary interest and it globally represents the second most frequent cancer in females. The viruses, in particular HPV 16 and HPV 18 are found in cervical cancer. They are now found in an increasing percentage of oropharyngeal cancers. However, they are also present in 30-50 % of penile and vulvar cancer, and are linked to the majority of anal cancers as well.

PJ: Based on your research, a vaccine was developed against HPV. How does it work?

HzH: The vaccine induces antibodies against the major structural protein of the virus. Thus, the antibodies neutralize the incoming virus and prevent it from a successful infection. Since these viruses are sexually transmitted, the vaccine should be applied prior to the onset of sexual activity. Once latently infected, the cells do not express the viral structural proteins. Therefore, vaccination at this stage (at least for the infected cells) will be without recognizable effect.

PJ: The HPV vaccine is safe and effective, yet parents continue to worry and don’t vaccinate their teenage daughters against HPV. Additionally, it seems there are no viable world programs yet for immunizing boys. What can scientists do to counter this?

HzH: It is, indeed, desirable to also vaccinate boys. As scientists we have to advocate the immunization of boys and girls. The most important aspect will be to explain to physicians, but also to health officials the value and safety of this vaccine.

PJ: What still needs to be done in the field of HPV research?

HzH: It will be most important to find specific modes of treatment for those individuals who are already infected by these viruses. In my opinion, more activities are needed to interfere with the products of the potentially oncogenic functions of the E6 and E7 genes of these agents.

PJ: Are you currently working on other human cancers that could be connected to infections?

HzH: Yes, indeed. We are presently studying the possible involvement of infectious agents in colon cancer and early childhood cancers. The work in these directions is mostly based on epidemiological observations.

PJ: What impact does the Nobel Prize have on your day-to-day life?

HzH: It had some impact on my daily life. I am travelling more than previously, and receive many requests for statements, supporting initiatives and so on.

PJ: Do you have any advice for researchers who are just starting in the field?

HzH: In my opinion, young researchers should start with an original idea and try to prove or disprove it. A working hypothesis is essential for successful work. In addition, however, it is also of great importance to work persistently on these projects and not to be discouraged by criticism of your peers.

PJ: Thank you very much for your time.

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