The most common sexually transmitted disease is often silent and invisible: human papillomavirus (also called HPV). But in some people HPV leads to genital warts and cancers – notably, cervical cancer.
The vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix were designed as a prevention for young women who have not yet been exposed to HPV. Men up to age 26 are also eligible for Gardasil to protect against HPV. But there are a lot of people out there who still have HPV, and nothing protects against all 130 strains of the virus. At least half of all sexually active males and females have had HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A Pennsylvania start-up company called Inovio Pharmaceuticals has developed an experimental vaccine for people who already have HPV and precancerous lesions that are associated with it. A new study demonstrating the vaccine's safety and potential effectiveness was published this week in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
The experimental vaccine does not use the live HPV virus; it is formulated in synthetic DNA and pure water. It uses the immune system of the treated women to fight off cancer, said Joseph Kim, president and CEO of Inovio Pharmaceuticals and study co-author.
Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer after breast cancer, with about 493,000 new cases and 274,000 deaths annually, the study said. HPV causes about 5% of cancers globally.