A hero of women and science: 2008 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2008

Ian Frazer

Follow this link to Ian Frazer’s acceptance speech: http://www.uq.edu.au/news/?article=16238

Ian Frazer has created four vaccines to fight cervical cancer. Two of them-Gardasil and Cervarix-are now on the market. Both prevent infection with the virus responsible for most cervical cancers. The other two vaccines are in clinical trials and are designed to treat women who have already been infected.

And Ian isn’t finished-he’s already working on the next generation of cervical cancer vaccines. But his greatest challenge is to get the vaccines to where they can do most good, in developing countries where screening programs are not widely available and 200,000 women die every year from cervical cancer.

Only then will his battle against cervical cancer be complete.

For his creation of the first vaccine designed to protect against a cancer, Ian Frazer receives the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

Ian Frazer was set for a career in physics when a chance encounter with an immunologist, the father of his pen-friend’s girlfriend, changed his course.

“I realised the importance of the vaccinations I had received in primary school and the huge social good of immunisation,” he says.

After completing his medical degrees in Scotland (training as a renal physician and clinical immunologist) he went to Melbourne to work at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. “The ‘Hall’ had a remarkable group of immunologists led at that time by Gus Nossal. It was the place to be for a young immunologist,” he says.

Ian combined his research work with clinical practice at the Royal Melbourne Hospital/Clinical Research Unit. He started to see a number of men presenting with rare penile and anal cancers. Their immune systems had been suppressed by what we now know to be HIV. But what was causing the cancers?

Ian was intrigued by emerging evidence from Harald zur Hausen in Germany that human papilloma virus (HPV) might cause cervical cancer. He started looking more closely at his own patients with precancerous anogenital disease and discovered that HPV was also responsible for their disease.

Zur Hausen received the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his discovery. He also found that the HPVs responsible for cancer weren’t rare viruses. These infections are widespread and for most people harmless. But persistent infection can lead to cancer.

“Everything we were learning suggested that a cervical cancer vaccine might be achievable,” says Ian.

Ian moved to the University of Queensland, established the Diamantina Institute for Immunology and Cancer Research, and recruited a leading molecular virologist, the late Jian Zhou from Cambridge.

But HPV was a hard virus to work with.

“At the time, most vaccines were based on growing the virus in cells, then weakening or inactivating it in some way. But we couldn’t grow HPV in cell culture. So we had to work out how to make virus-like particles; to make the proteins that form the outer coat of the virus and to get them to take the shape of the virus.”

It was a simple idea, but a difficult task, and one that Ian and Jian had almost given up on.

“Without Jian’s work I don’t think we’d have succeeded,” says Ian. “He suggested we should go back to basics and just combine two virus proteins in a test tube.” It worked. And by April 1991 the science of the vaccine was effectively complete.

But it wasn’t until 2006 that the vaccine reached the market.

“Once we’d shown that we could make the particles, and that they induced an immune response, that’s when the hard work started,” says Ian.

“We had to persuade the vaccine companies to invest and conduct the large and very expensive clinical trials needed before any vaccine can be approved for use.”

“We spoke to every major vaccine company in the world. CSL took an interest. They delivered Merck and then Glaxo Smith Kline.”

And the first two vaccines passed the trial with flying colours. They prevented HPV infections due to the virus types in the vaccines, and reduced the corresponding pap smear abnormalities (precancer lesions) by more than 95 per cent.

The Australian government came on board, supporting the vaccination of school girls and now 80 per cent of Australian secondary schoolgirls have been vaccinated with Gardasil. The two cervical cancer vaccines are also now increasingly part of children’s vaccination programs around the world.

So what’s next for Ian Frazer?

He’s gone on to develop two therapeutic vaccines to treat people already infected with HPV. Both vaccines are in early stage clinical trials.

He is a named inventor on patents relating to HPV vaccines, DNA vaccines and on methods for controlling therapeutic protein expression. A biotech start up company spun out from his research work is working on applying his ideas to other viral diseases including herpes.

The Diamantina Institute has grown from its early beginnings to a team of over 200 researchers at the Princess Alexandra Hospital and a new building is on the drawing board.

But his greatest challenge is to bring the vaccines to the people who need them most-women in developing countries. Price is an issue, as these are currently expensive vaccines. But it’s not the only issue. Most developing countries don’t have the programs and infrastructure to deliver the vaccines. Ian and his colleagues are working in Vanuatu and Nepal to understand how best to establish and run vaccination programs.

“The job’s not done until we can protect the millions of women at risk from cervical cancer,” he says.


1988 Doctor of Medicine, The University of Melbourne

1977 Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

1974 Bachelor of Science with Honours, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Biographical details

1991-present Director, Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research (Now the Diamantina Institute), University of Queensland

1994-present Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Queensland

1989-1993 Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Queensland

1985-1999 Director, Division of Clinical Immunology, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane

1985-1988 Senior Lecturer, Department of Medicine, University of Queensland

1981-1985 Senior Research Officer, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Melbourne

1981-1985 Assistant, Department of Medicine, The University of Melbourne

1981-1985 Assistant Physician, Clinical Research Unit, The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Melbourne

1980 Registrar, Medical Renal Unit, Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, Scotland

1979 Senior House Officer, Department of Medicine, Eastern General Hospital, Edinburgh, Scotland

1978 Senior House Officer, Medical Renal Unit, Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, Scotland

1977 House Officer, Eastern General Hospital, Edinburgh, Scotland

1977 House Officer, Roodlands Hospital, Haddington, Scotland

Selected awards

2008 Balzan Prize

2008 American Academy of Dermatology Lila Gruber Award for Dermatology

2007 Novartis Prize for Clinical Immunology, Rio de Janeiro

2007 Golden Plate recipient, International Achievement Summit

2007 International Life Award for Scientific Research

2007 Howard Florey Medal

2007 Clunies Ross Award, Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering

2006 William Coley Medal, Cancer Research Institute, New York

2006 Distinguished Fellowship Award, Royal College of Pathologists

2006 Australian of the Year

2006 Queenslander of the Year

2005 CSIRO Eureka Award for Leadership in Science

2005 John Curtin Medal

2003 Centenary Medal for services to cancer research

1999 Australian Biotechnology Award

1999 Business/Higher Education Round Table award for Collaborative Research


Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, since 1988

Royal College of Pathologists of Australia, since 1989

Australian Institute of Company Directors, since 2002

Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering, since 2003

Australian Academy of Science, since 2004