We don’t much worry about diseases like smallpox or polio or the bubonic plague anymore. These maladies left our lives so long enough ago that we take their disappearance for granted. I’m happy to take things like that for granted; I don’t think I could live any other way.

On the flip side, we assume diseases that we currently experience will be with us forever. It is hard to imagine that someone will really cure Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes or cancer. Of course, we recognize that doctors and scientists will keep trying to eradicate the diseases — or at least make a little progress — but cures seem unlikely. Who could do that?

It turns out that scientists at Georgetown could. And did — at least for one type of cancer.

A little background is necessary in order to understand this story: About 20 years ago, a professor at Georgetown, Dick Schlegel, was working on human papillomavirus. There are several versions of HPV but all infect skin cells. The skin cells that we generally think about are dead cells on the surface of our skin. Underneath, however, there are living skin cells, and some of these cells are in tissues covered with mucus — like in our throats. Those are places where HPV can infect.

Once the virus infects these skin cells, it does several things: It copies its DNA, makes protein shells called capsids to surround the DNA and releases these replicated viruses to infect more cells. It doesn’t take very many HPV genes to do all this. Along the way, some of these genes make a mess of the normal functioning of the cells they have infected, which can cause these cells to grow inappropriately. Over 20 or 30 years, these cells can become cancerous.

The good news is that 90 percent of the time, the immune system rids the body of HPV before any permanent damage is done. But not always. When HPV infects cells in the cervix, it can lead to cervical cancer, which causes hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. There are fewer deaths in the United States, due to preventative screening measures like pap smears, but still, nearly 4,000 women in the United States died of cervical cancer in 2009.

To attack this problem, Schlegel, who works at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, researched the proteins that make up the protein shell of the HPV virus. He was able to actually make the protein shell without any DNA inside. When injected into experimental animals, these particles were recognized as foreign by the immune system and attacked with antibodies. Once the body learned to defend itself against this defective HPV, there was no risk of infection from real HPV.

Years went by, experiments were performed — by Schlegel, by collaborators, by drug companies — and research progressed from animals to humans. Finally, in 2006, Gardasil was approved as a vaccine for HPV and now protects against versions of HPV that are involved in 70 percent of cervical cancers. If most women in the United States were vaccinated against HPV, thousands of lives would be saved each year.

Maybe it is an overstatement to say that scientists at Georgetown cured cervical cancer, but it is not entirely inaccurate. Through its patents, Georgetown and its research labs now profit from the use of Gardasil. This continued research investment allows the labs to look for better vaccines and other viruses to protect against. Most importantly, researchers are looking for ways to bring an HPV vaccine to more women worldwide to prevent the thousands upon thousands of deaths.

I’m proud when I see Georgetown beat Syracuse in basketball (two out of three times this year, anyway). I’m proud when I hear an authority on NPR identified as a Georgetown professor. I’m proud when I know a student who has earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Turkey. But “proud” doesn’t begin to describe what I feel when I think about Gardasil. Awed? Maybe. Inspired? Certainly. Grateful? Yeah, grateful. Grateful will do.

It wasn’t inevitable that a vaccine for HPV would be developed. But 20 years ago, Schlegel set out to do this research, and he made it happen. It makes me wonder what else we can do here, at Georgetown.

And when we do, everyone will take it for granted.

Bill Rebeck is a professor in the neuroscience department at Georgetown University Medical Center.

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