Cervical cancer is invariably caused by the HPV (human papillomavirus) infection. Globally around 470,000 new cases are reported every year, and the disease annually kills around 230,000 women, many of whom are from developing countries.
And so when a drug company says it has discovered an effective vaccine against the virus, people should sit up and take notice.
That’s exactly what happened when researchers from Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire tested a new vaccine, code-named HPV-16 and HPV-18, on 1,113 women against a placebo. It was effective against infection in nearly 92 per cent of cases, and was 100% effective against persistent infection.
As a result the paper was ‘fast-tracked’ by The Lancet, and its findings – “the vaccine could contribute substantially to reducing worldwide rates of cervical cancer” – were the only words on that week’s cover.
So what’s the problem? Well, it’s probably nothing, but. . .the drug has been developed by GlaxoSmithKline, most of the researchers receive some funding or support from GlaxoSmithKline, the trial was paid for by GlaxoSmithKline, and technical analyses of the data was prepared by employees of GlaxoSmithKline.
We’re not suggesting for a moment that there’s been any wrong-doing or that there’s been even the slightest partiality – it would have been nice if just someone not associated with GlaxoSmithKline had a look in, that’s all.
(Source: The Lancet, 2004; 364: 1757-65).