June 14, 2006, Updated September 13, 2012

Dr. Eliav Barr: This is the first time we have been able to state that administration of the vaccine is going to have an effect on cervical cancer. (Photo: NRG)An Israeli-born doctor stands at the head of team from pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. Inc. who announced this week the FDA approval of the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer

Senior director of Clinical Research, Merck Research Laboratories Dr. Eliav Barr, originally from Haifa, said about bout the genetically engineered vaccine Gardasil, “This is the first time we have been able to state that administration of the vaccine is going to have an effect on cervical cancer.”

In the United States, almost 10,000 women develop cervical cancer each year, leading to 3,000 deaths. In the developing world, the problem is far worse, probably because women are less likely to get screenings that can catch unusual growths before they become cancerous. Worldwide, cervical cancer kills 300,000 women a year.

Almost all the cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with the human papilloma virus, or HPV, which causes normal cells to multiply out of control. Some strains of HPV lead to cancer (two strains account for 70% of cervical cancers), and others cause genital warts.

Because cervical cancer does not occur in women who have not contracted HPV, Merck, under Barr’s guidance, has developed what is essentially the world’s first cancer vaccine.

Public health experts called the Gardasil vaccine a major advance against the disease.
“This vaccine is a significant advance in the protection of women’s health in that it strikes at the infections that are the root cause of many cervical cancers,” acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach told Reuters.

Given in three doses over six months, Gardasil targets four HPV types believed to cause more than 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of genital warts. The vaccine was approved for use in girls and women ages 9 to 26, Merck said.

Barr started his medical career as a cardiologist. So it was quite a shift in the mid-1990s when his employer, Merck, asked Barr to join a team that was developing an HPV vaccine.

“I had to go look up what HPV meant,” Barr, 42, told The Intelligencer. “This is about as far as you can get from medicine.”

Barr said he’s overwhelmed by the feeling that he’s helped develop something that will save millions of lives.

“It’s very difficult to describe,” Barr said. “One gets very emotional. It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.”

The biggest challenge for Gardasil comes because of the target market: adolescent girls. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, and some 20 million American men and women have it. To prevent women from getting cervical cancer, women must be inoculated before they become sexually active. But for some parents and religious groups, that might be a touchy question.

Merck’s Barr says that won’t be a problem. “You have to understand what’s at stake here,” he told Forbes. “Regardless of your background, as a parent, you want to be able to protect your child against cancer.”

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