William Bonnez, M.D., began his research on human papillomaviruses (HPV) in the early 1980s as an infectious disease fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center. At first, cancer was not a concern. He and his then supervisor, Richard Reichman, M.D., were interested in HPV as a cause of genital warts, a sexually transmitted disease. They were looking for a blood test that would detect the infection, gauge its severity, and perhaps reveal how the body contains the infection.
At the time, researchers were just beginning to recognize HPV as a possible cause of cervical cancer. As evidence of HPV’s role grew, Bonnez, Reichman, and later, a third colleague, Robert Rose, Ph.D., saw the potential to address not just genital warts but also to prevent an infection that could lead to cancer.
In 1986, Bonnez was awarded a Wilmot Cancer Research Fellowship to continue his research on HPV. This fellowship, established in 1982 by late businessman and philanthropist James P. Wilmot, is awarded to physicians who had completed their training and are on the cusp of their research careers.
Over the course of the fellowship and the years beyond, he and his colleagues laid the groundwork that led to the world’s first vaccines against HPVs, Gardasil and Cervarix. They were able to show that the virus-like particles they created to mimic HPV would generate neutralizing antibodies that would keep the actual virus from infecting human tissue.
“Without the Fellowship, the work would never have happened,” says Bonnez, professor of Infectious Diseases.
Vaccination against HPV is now recommended for children 11 and older, as well as men and women up to age 26. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2013 that since the introduction of the vaccine in 2006, the prevalence of HPV infection among adolescent girls has dropped 56 percent.
“I will always be grateful to the Wilmot family for their support,” Bonnez says.