A vaccine against a virus that causes cervical cancer could cut the number of cases and deaths from the disease by up to 75 per cent, research has found.

Cancer experts said the findings were "extremely exciting".

Several drugs companies have developed vaccines to prevent the virus and the first product could be licensed for use in Britain by the end of the year.

Almost 3,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year and more than 1,000 die from the disease. It is the second most common cause of cancer in women under 35 years old.

Three quarters of all cases are caused by two strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV), an infection that is sexually transmitted.

It is estimated that up to half of all women have been infected with HPV before the age of 30.

The drugs company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has developed a vaccine against the two most high-risk HPV strains, known as 16 and 18. A paper presented at the International Papillomavirus Conference in Prague yesterday found that if 100 per cent of all 12-year-old girls received the vaccine, called Cervarix, there would be a 75 per reduction in cases of cervical cancer and a 76 per cent drop in deaths.

Universal take up of the vaccine is unlikely, but even if only 80 per cent of girls received the jab, cases and deaths from the disease would fall by two thirds.

Dr Anne Szarewski, a clinical consultant for Cancer Research UK, said: "HPV vaccination offers great promise in terms of reducing the number of cases of cervical cancer and preventing deaths from it.

"Beyond the cases and the deaths, hundreds of thousands of women each year in the UK suffer anxiety when they have an abnormal smear result. The idea of finally being able to prevent cases of cervical cancer with a vaccine is extremely exciting."

GSK has applied to the European Medicines Evaluation Agency (EMEA) for marketing authorisation for Cervarix and a decision is expected soon.

A rival vaccine for HPV called Gardasil, manufactured by the drugs company Merck, was approved by the EMEA in July and is expected to receive a licence for use in the UK in the next few months.

A study also presented at the Prague conference found that the Merck vaccine may give even wider protection than previously thought.

The research found that Gardasil may not only prevent the 16 and 18 strains of HPV, but also neutralise the 31 and 45 types that account for another 9 per cent of all cases.

But the vaccines have caused controversy because they are most effective before a woman becomes sexually active.

Research has suggested that the vaccine should be administered to girls at the age of nine, but the Catholic Church and some family campaigners have protested that such a plan could encourage underage sex.

Once a vaccine is licensed in the UK, it would be up to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to decide whether it should be included on the list given to children. The vaccinations would be run in tandem with a cervical screening programme.