Professor Ian Frazer is involved in research to find viruses that could play a role in the development of skin cancers and said the vaccine could be available in ten years.
The Glasgow-born researcher, now based in Australia, said that once the viruses had been identified, experts hoped the drug could be developed to target the infections.
Scotland, along with other parts of the UK, has seen a huge increase in skin cancer cases in the past decade. Cases of malignant melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer – have gone up more than 50 per cent in ten years, with more than 1,200 cases diagnosed each year.
In addition, almost 11,000 non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basel cell and squamous cell cancers, are diagnosed in Scotland each year. Although these are much less likely to be fatal, they place a major burden on health services.
Prof Frazer will return to Edinburgh, where he did his medical training, to speak in a Royal Society of Edinburgh lecture on 24 June about his work to develop the vaccine to protect against human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer.
These vaccines are now used in immunisation programmes around the world in the hope of cutting cervical cancers significantly in years to come.
Ahead of his visit, Prof Frazer told The Scotsman his research team were now seeing whether similar benefits could firstly be found for squamous cell skin cancer.
“We are looking at skin cancer and seeing whether there might be a virus there that might be amenable to a vaccine that would help reduce the burden of skin cancer,” he said.
“Obviously, most skin cancer risk comes from exposure to sunlight. But there is a lot of evidence to suggest that there’s another factor beyond the sunlight that determines whether you get the cancer because if you take away people’s defences against infection, then skin cancer becomes 1,000 times more common.
“That suggests that there’s an infection as well so we’re looking for the viruses and also thinking about how the immune system fights skin cancer so we can do something to help someone get rid of cancer when they get it.”
Prof Frazer said some viruses linked to cancer used a “hit and run” mechanism which made them more difficult to identify.
“You get the virus, it starts the process off but then the virus goes away but the process carries on and you end up with cancer,” he said.
“We know that happens in some cancers. We are now working on the basis that we should be looking for the virus that might cause skin cancer much earlier in the process before there’s actually a cancer there.”
Prof Frazer, based at the Translational Research Institute in Brisbane, said it was hoped the work to identify a virus linked to skin cancer would be completed within a year, before they went on to develop a vaccine which could be given to prevent the viruses causing the disease.
“What might be possible would be to give it to people even if they are already infected with these viruses to prevent them having the risk to go and develop the cancer,” he said.
But he added the work involved in developing and testing vaccines meant it could be a decade before people would be benefiting from such an approach.
“It took 15 years to turn the knowledge that papilloma virus could cause cervical cancer into a working vaccine and another ten years to prove that it worked,” Prof Frazer said.
“So I don’t think, sitting without the knowledge of the virus at the moment, we could say it would be anything less than ten years.”
He also pointed out that a vaccine would not be an excuse to ignore public health messages to be careful in the sun, which would always be a key part of avoiding cancer.
Leigh Smith, from Melanoma Action and Support Scotland, said “Even with basel cell and squamous cell cancers there are people who have very difficult cases. So having a vaccine that could prevent these would be fantastic.”
Dr Laura McCallum of Cancer Research UK, said: “This study could also help understand the role of the immune system in skin cancer which will hopefully lead to better treatments in the future.”