Dr. John Schiller and his research partner Dr. Douglas Lowy have prevented an estimated 360,000 cases of cervical cancer and 150,000 related deaths.
Schiller and Lowy are the creators of the vaccine for the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer. They didn’t set out to develop a vaccine but through research flexibility, they developed the life-saving technology — and earned the 2012 National Medal of Technology and Innovation for their efforts.
“When we first started developing this vaccine … we were studying how the virus causes cancer. We weren’t studying vaccines,” Schiller said, describing the unforeseen path to the HPV vaccine at a joint program between Carnegie Institution for Science and the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation.
“We knew nothing about vaccines. We knew nothing about immunology. We nothing about the virion proteins, which became this vaccine,” he added. “We had an idea and we were allowed to pursue this idea without anybody telling us that it wouldn’t work.”
Schiller, now the deputy chief in the Laboratory of Cellular Oncology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), noted that every researcher’s road to discovery is unique and made possible by “crawling up on the backs of giants.”
For Schiller and Lowy that giant was German scientist Harald zur Hausen — who won the 1983 Nobel Prize for discovering “cervical cancer in humans is caused by certain types of papillomaviruses.”
“I didn’t anticipate this, I could not have anticipated this, but it added so much more interest into the research we were doing at the time,” Schiller said. “If he had not discovered this, we could not have done what we did.”