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Duo of Oncology Vaccine Pioneers at the National Cancer Institute to Receive 2018 Annual Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research

First Occasion for Award to Recognize Extraordinary Contributions
in Cancer Prevention, Role of Vaccines

Dr. John Schiller and Dr. Douglas Lowy

The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) announced today that the 2018 Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research will be awarded to Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., and John T. Schiller, Ph.D., for development of vaccines for human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes 99% of cervical cancer cases. Collaborators for over 30 years at the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Lowy and Schiller developed the first Food and Drug Administration approved vaccines specifically targeting cancer.

The technology resulting from the tandem’s research, discovery and development efforts has been licensed to pharmaceutical corporations, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, and is marketed, respectively, as Gardasil®, Gardasil 9® and Cervarix®. According to NCI, widespread administration of any of these three vaccines could reduce the global incidence of new cervical cancer by two-thirds or more, representing at least 350,000 cases per year. The vaccines are also effective against less common HPV-associated cancers of the penis, vagina and vulva, among others.

Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer among women worldwide, and the second most frequent cause of cancer-related fatalities, accounting for nearly 300,000 deaths annually. The overwhelming majority of cases and deaths are in the developing world.

The 2018 Szent-Györgyi Prize’s selection committee was unanimous in its decision to recognize Lowy and Schiller, whose contributions in the fields of oncology and virology have changed the paradigm of cancer prevention, previously focused primarily on lifestyle factors such as diet, smoking and alcohol consumption. Not one, but two of their discoveries underpin all currently administered HPV vaccines worldwide. While either one of these breakthroughs elevates the reputations of the two scientists to commanding heights, the committee also acknowledged Lowy and Schiller’s comprehensive shepherding of their vaccine technology from theory to animal models, and onward through successful Phase I, II and III clinical trials, while continuing with Phase IV surveillance.

Working initially with the bovine papilloma virus, Lowy and Schiller applied their expertise to HPV. They were able to exploit the discovery that the L1 protein which comprises HPV’s outer layer can self-assemble and form “virus-like particles” which mimic the disease-causing agent but themselves are not infectious. These VLPs could induce HPV-neutralizing antibodies found to prevent cervical and other cancers.

Later, Lowy and Schiller resolved a major challenge to the prospect of commercial-scale HPV vaccine production. The L1 protein derived from the dominant HPV type 16 isolate used by investigators at the time yielded VLPs at a troublingly low rate. The two researchers proposed and proved the hypothesis that this low yield was due to a random mutation in the particular viral isolate they and their peers were studying. Screen and characterize another isolate, and the problem should be solved. It was.

  • “Doctors Lowy and Shiller’s work has likely already prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths due to cervical cancer, and this is just the beginning,” said Michael N. Hall, Ph.D., Professor of Biochemistry, Biozentrum of the University of Basel, Switzerland, winner of the 2017 Szent-Györgyi Prize and chair of this year’s Prize selection committee. “They are true heroes in the fight against cancer.” 
  • “Doug Lowy and John Schiller have had monumental impact in the field of cancer sciences and could not be more deserving of this award,” stated Sujuan Ba, Ph.D., co-chair of the 2018 Prize selection committee and President of NFCR. “Many thousands of women’s lives have already been saved and exponentially more productive, disease-free years gained as a result of these two giants of oncology and virology.” 
  • “We are thrilled to have our work recognized by this prestigious award,” said Dr. Lowy, NCI Deputy Director and Chief of its Laboratory of Cellular Oncology (LCO). “As our discoveries wouldn’t have been possible without earlier breakthroughs, our work takes advantage of many advances in HPV and vaccine research.” 
  • “To be included with this esteemed group of scientists who have won this award is a great honor,” stated Dr. Schiller, LCO Deputy Laboratory Chief, Chief of its Section of Neoplastic Disease and a National Institutes of Health Distinguished Investigator. “The exceptional discoveries of these luminaries have had a great impact on cancer treatment, diagnosis and prevention, and on saving lives.”  

Doctors Lowy and Schiller will be honored at an award ceremony held Saturday, May 5th at The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. Media are invited and encouraged to attend.