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The Virus That Owns the WorldDung Hoang

The Virus That Owns the World (continued)

The situation is even worse in developing countries. Worldwide, the numbers of women developing cervical cancer and dying from it annually remain unnecessarily high. Cervical cancer death rates are not dropping in places where screening is limited and the cost of preventive vaccines, prohibitive; in Shah’s native India, for instance, as well as in Taiwan.

T.C. Wu set out from Taiwan in 1984 and has been a Shah protégé ever since. “The whole story of me has 100 percent to do with Keerti,” Wu says.

With a new medical degree and new wife, Wu was 27 when he left home on an extended honeymoon trip that involved his bagging a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins. That’s where his life plan of becoming a surgeon bumped up against Shah, and promptly derailed.

“I attended a lecture given by Keerti who was talking about a new virus that was found to be associated with cervical cancer,” Wu recalls. “All the textbooks said it was herpes, but here he was talking about the human papillomavirus. Because of that lecture, I spent the next five years [at Johns Hopkins] studying molecular biology related to a tiny virus.”

Wu, MD, PhD ’89, MPH ’85, is a professor of Pathology, Oncology, Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Molecular Microbiology and Immunology who now directs a long-term Hopkins-based project to develop vaccine strategies for the prevention and treatment of diseases caused by HPV.

During his graduate studies here, Wu became intrigued by the idea of using immunotherapy to target HPV-associated cancers. At the time, Shah had in place an HPV program that allowed Wu to accomplish an ambitious first step toward that goal: He created a mouse model of cervical cancer on which therapeutic vaccines could be developed and tested.

“We called it TC1,” Wu says, adding that the mouse name refers to “Tissue Culture 1” and not himself.

For the past nine years, he has headed up research efforts for a program that relies on extensive teamwork among the Hopkins community and receives the largest translational research funding for cervical cancer vaccine research provided by the National Cancer Institute, amounting to $14.4 million per five-year cycle.

The program, called the Cervical Cancer SPORE, is associated with several ongoing clinical trials of a new generation of relatively inexpensive vaccines that could protect women against more than 90 percent of all cervical cancers.

Everybody, including Shah, thought a therapeutic vaccine would be the quick and easy bow on top of the neatly tied-up HPV success story. Unlike the prophylactic HPV vaccines that produce antibodies to prevent viruses from growing, a therapeutic vaccine would work by looking for antigens in cancer tissue and attacking them. In the case of HPV, a viral antigen is present in every single tumor cell, so success seemed clear-cut, Shah says.

Therapeutic vaccines in development have cured thousands of mice seeded with cancer cells. None has yet cured humans. However, with continued efforts, the therapeutic HPV vaccine may soon become available.

When surveying the whole of HPV research—its past and future—Shah alludes to a paragraph in Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell that describes scientific activity. For a long time, nothing makes sense. There are many false leads as people buzz about; bits of information fly here and there, as if somebody had disturbed a beehive.

And then, Shah recites this passage:

“There suddenly emerges, with the purity of a slow phrase of music, a single new piece of truth about nature.”


 “The whole story of me has 100 percent to do with Keerti.” —T.C. Wu


  • Mukund

    Staten Island 06/06/2013 11:15:46 PM

    Keertimama, You are my hero, my mama and my scientist.

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Lessons From the Master

Lessons From the Master

Patti Gravitt reflects on the science and life lessons she learned from Keerti Shah during the decades they’ve spent investigating human papillomavirus.

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