The first two women have been recruited to a British trial of a vaccine which could prevent cervical cancer. The trial, the first trial of its kind in the UK is being spearheaded by both the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF). It comes as the CRC publishes a report on cervical cancer, which estimates there are over 3,000 new cases and 1,300 deaths from the disease in the UK every year.
The trial aims to boost women's immune systems against the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is transmitted through unprotected sex, and causes almost all cases of cervical cancer.
The key to the trial's success is discovering exactly how much of the vaccine women need to fight HPV. Once the optimum dose has been decided, there will be larger trials to see if the vaccine can actually be used to prevent infection with HPV.
The trial, based at St Mary's Hospital in Manchester, will recruit 24 women who all have abnormal cervical smears. They will be given different doses of the vaccine, and checked six months later to see how their immune system has responded.
Results are expected in 2002 but it is could be 10 years before a vaccine is widely available.
Henry Kitchener, professor of gynecological oncology at Manchester University and the trial leader, said: "A lot of hopes are resting on the success of this trial and the development of a preventative vaccine for cervical cancer.
"If we could develop a vaccine against the HPV virus, it would be phenomenally important for women, particularly in the developing world where huge numbers develop cervical cancer and there are very limited facilities for preventing and treating it."
Julian Peto, CRC professor of epidemiology at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, Surrey, believes that a vaccine against HPV will become a reality.
"In the long term, the best way of preventing cervical cancer has to be by wiping out the HPV infection that causes it. I believe it is only a matter of time before scientists develop a vaccine that is capable of doing this.
It should then be given to youngsters before they become sexually active. In the meantime, women must continue to have regular cervical smears which are the best protection against cervical cancer."
He estimates up to 50% of women may be infected with HPV during their lifetime.
In most cases, there are no obvious symptoms, and HPV disappears after a few months. But Professor Peto believes the virus may remain undetectable in the cervix and could reactivate at any time.
He said: "A woman's sexual past when she was a teenager may come back to haunt her when she is in her 50s, 60s or 70s, and when she has been in a monogamous marriage for many decades."
The CRC stresses that the vast majority of HPV cases do not go on to cause cervical cancer.
Women can protect themselves against HPV by having regular smears, not having unprotected sex and not smoking.
Professor Jack Cuzick, of the ICRF, said: "We know that most women will be exposed to HPV at some stage in their lives but the risk of cancer appears to be restricted to women for whom the infection is not cleared by the immune system.
It may be that vaccination at older ages - even after a woman has been exposed to HPV - will boost the immune response enough to prevent the virus from persisting and that this would be very effective in preventing cervical cancer."