Ian Frazer, Jian Zhou

Vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV)

Non-EPO Countries
Technical field
The University of Queensland and CSL Limited
The invention by Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou at the University of Queensland, Australia, changed preventative women’s health forever. Their progressive vaccine disrupts the link between human papillomavirus (HPV) – a sexually-transmitted virus infecting the skin and mucosal tissues – and cervical cancer.

Winners of the European Inventor Award 2015

The widely available vaccine has been used over 125 million times since market entry in 2006. Administered via injection, the vaccine not only offers full protection from “high-risk” types of human papillomavirus (HPV), mainly HPV 16 and HPV 18, but also from HPV types 6 and 11, which cause 90% of genital-wart infections.

Frazer and Zhou achieved their breakthrough by stabilising so-called virus-like-particles (VLPs). These artificial compounds build immunity against the virus by mimicking the microscopic surface structure of HPV. Thereby, the vaccine “teaches” the immune system to defeat the virus, without containing any actual viral DNA.

Societal benefit

Being able to break the connection from virus to cancer with a vaccine unlocks a powerful new approach: Instead of relying on preventative screening for cancer, or initiating treatment after patients present with symptoms, doctors are now able to stop cancer-causing HPV in its tracks. Immunization initiatives against HPV have gained traction around the world.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), as well as public health officials in Australia, Canada, Europe, and the United States now recommend vaccination against HPV for young women aged 9 to 25 years old. And in order to make the invention available where it is most needed, the University of Queensland has waived royalties on sales of the vaccine in 72 developing countries, where most deaths from cervical cancer occur due to lack of preventive diagnostics.

Economic benefit

The vaccine has been marketed since 2006 by US pharmaceutical company Merck & Co under the name Gardasil . An alternative product called Cervarix uses similar technology and has been manufactured by British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline since 2007. In total the vaccine is now used in 120 countries around the world and has been administered more than 125 million times worldwide. In 2013, total worldwide sales of Gardasil were estimated at € 1.49 billion (US$ 1.83 billion). Cervarix sales were about € 500 million for the year.

The success story continues: In December 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the follow-up vaccine Gardasil 9. It is designed to protect against nine different strains of HPV and sales are expected to reach € 1.55 billion ($ 1.9 billion) by 2018.

How it works

From a structural perspective, HPV is a highly unstable virus and impossible to mass-produce in the laboratory. Therefore, a vaccine based on live viral elements was not feasible. Instead, Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou devised the formation of “virus-like particles” (VLPs) for their HPV vaccine.

Constructed from a yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae – the brewer’s yeast traditionally used to make wine and beer – these “virus lookalikes” mimic the surface structure of HPV viral DNA. Injected into the human body, virus-like particles elicit the production of 30-80 times more antibodies than their natural counterparts.

The inventors

Ian Frazer joined the University of Queensland in 1985 after earning his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. Working on a vaccine against HPV, Frazer suffered a setback when the live virus proved impossible to grow in the laboratory. But as fate would have it, he met Cambridge immunologist Jian Zhou. Zhou, a specialist in gene cloning, managed to clone HPV surface proteins onto a different virus that served as a template – paving the way for the vaccine. Jian Zhou died tragically in 1999, aged just 42, from hepatitis he had contracted in his youth in South-East China. Undaunted, Frazer continued the work of bringing their vaccine to market.

Did you know?

The connection between human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer in women had already been established in 1984. German virologist Harald zur Hausen, after decades of research, identified so-called “high-risk” types of HPV, mainly HPV 16 and HPV 18, as the main causes behind more than 70% of all cervical cancers. He also identified the virus as the cause of several other types of cancer in both women and men. But although the discovery would ultimately earn zur Hausen the Nobel Prize in Medicine, a vaccine only became possible more than 20 years later, when Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou invented Gardasil.

Inventors revisited

In 2020, the EPO reconnected with former finalists and winners for their views on trends in innovation and intellectual property, and a rare glimpse at cutting-edge new research and inventions. 

Rino Rappuoli
Saving lives through invention5

Ian Frazer co‑invented a world‑changing HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. He received the European Inventor Award in the Non‑EPO countries category in 2015 and has since played a pivotal role in steering research. In separate interviews, he has helped dispel coronavirus misconceptions and spoken on the plan to eradicate cervical cancer.

Logo of the Talk innovation podcast
Talk innovation

Ian Frazer is a world-renowned immunologist who co-invented the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. Today, Ian guides research on several fascinating and ambitious projects, including the total eradication of cervical cancer, and also shares insight on coronavirus treatments. In this podcast, the former European Inventor Award winner discusses the journey to the HPV vaccine, the role of patents in driving innovation, and the challenges faced in reducing deaths, despite the availability of vaccines.

Patent numbers:

EP0750669 and five additional patents


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