The Pros (and Not Many Cons) of Merck’s HPV Vaccine, According to UW’s Laura Koutsky
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was postponed at the end of October while the alliance figures out how to best allocate its money during the financial crisis, Tsu said.
Koutsky, who said she doesn’t own Merck stock or receive any payment from the company, said she’s hopeful that competition will bring down the price over time. GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccine Cervarix, which isn’t yet approved by the FDA, could offer a competitive threat that brings down the price over time, she says.
Since this talk is called Science on Tap, I should probably relate some of the science Koutsky covered. One reason HPV is such a good candidate for a vaccine is that its viral genome is stable, and not constantly mutating and creating a moving target for a vaccine, like HIV does. The outer shell of the virus is also highly immunogenic, which means that it provokes antibodies to fight it right away. The vaccine is also made by using yeast cells as miniature drug factories, which means that Merck pays a royalty to the Washington Research Foundation on the latter’s intellectual property for making proteins in yeast. That could be a boon to the UW for years to come, since that vital intellectual property doesn’t expire until 2014.
Even though she didn’t point to many cons to the vaccine in her prepared talk, Koutsky had a pretty balanced view of the pharmaceutical industry when pressed. She encouraged some of the young scientists in the audience to consider jobs at Merck, but to go in with their eyes wide open. “The scientists at Merck are top-flight,” she said. “I’d encourage you to look at it, because they have tremendous resources and a tremendous agenda to get something done. Sometimes in the public sector we wonder what the heck we’re working on, and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
But all that focused energy sometimes means that science takes a backseat. Afterward, Koutsky related a story that Tsu told her, that HPV vaccine is being marketed to older women in Argentina who have the money to pay for it, even though it’s most effective for young women before they become sexually active. “Once you have a product in the pharmaceutical industry, then marketing becomes involved,” Koutsky said.