Twenty-nine years ago, scientists didn’t know what caused many of the genital-tract cancers they studied, much less how to stop them.
Today, not only has human papillomavirus been pinpointed as the viral perpetrator behind nearly all genital-tract and some head and neck cancers, there’s now an incredibly effective vaccine that can prevent high-risk HPV infections from ever developing into cancer.
“You can almost say on the street, ‘I’m doing HPV research’ and ordinary people will know what that is,” said Aaro Turunen, an HPV researcher from the University of Turku in Finland. “It’s a sexy subject, especially for the media.”
While scientific advancements, public awareness and yes, media coverage, have grown exponentially in the last three decades, there is still much to learn and do – particularly with regard to getting the vaccine to the people who most need it, both here in the U.S. and around the world.
That’s where the International Papillomavirus Conference, currently in its twenty-ninth year, comes in.
The HPV2014 conference, now underway at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, has drawn the brightest minds in HPV research, including nearly 1,300 basic scientists, public health researchers, physicians, providers and others dedicated to eliminating the suffering caused by the human papillomavirus. The goal of the conference is to share cutting-edge scientific advances in the field of HPV infection and disease and come up with new ways to collaborate to advance science and public health.
The conference officially began today but kicked off early Wednesday with two days of clinical and public health pre-conference workshops covering everything from HPV infection and disease in HIV-infected men to implementing and evaluating two-dose vaccine schedules to a peek at the next generation of HPV vaccines coming down the pike.
Conference chair Dr. Denise Galloway, who holds a joint appointment with Fred Hutch’s Human Biology and Public Health Sciences divisions, said she was thrilled the conference was taking place in the Hutch’s back yard.
“I’m excited that the HPV meeting will be here as it recognizes the strength and breadth we have in HPV research in Seattle,” she said. “Our main goal was to provide a setting where people from all over the world who study various aspects of papillomavirus biology, disease and prevention could come together to share their data and ideas.”
Galloway, who has been investigating the link between cancer and viruses since 1978, was instrumental in both discovering HPV’s association with many cancers and paving the way for a vaccine able to check cervical cancer before it starts in hundreds of thousands of women worldwide.
These days, she’s researching B cell memory in order to determine how effective the HPV vaccine is over a person’s lifetime.
“If a vaccine is going to work, it’s not just important how well this will stimulate the immune system, which you can measure within a couple of months after you get the vaccine,” she said. “You also want to know, is it going to be durable? Are you going to have a response 10 years, 20 years or 30 years from now? We’re trying to figure that out by looking at the cells that are there and available to make the responses in 10 and 15 years.”
Long-term efficacy is just one of many topics covered at the conference, which boasts an ambitious lineup of over 700 abstract presentations, nine satellite sessions, four symposia and four plenary sessions, all highlighting basic, clinical and public health science topics ranging from molecular virology to novel cancer screening and treatment strategies to global public health.
Also represented at the conference are pharmaceutical companies such as Merck, producer of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, and Roche, developer of the cobas HPV test. Also present are medical device manufacturers such as QIAGEN, which along with support from Seattle’s PATH, developed the careHPV test, a field-friendly and inexpensive test that allows women, particularly in developing countries, to gather screening samples themselves.
On Friday morning, Dr. Freddie Bray of the International Agency for Research on Cancer talked about the need for quality data and cancer registries, especially in developing countries and and Dr. Scott Ramsey of Fred Hutch’s HICOR division spoke about the value of prevention-based studies and interventions.
“There was a nice study done by the CDC a few years ago that looked at the cost effectiveness of HPV vaccination of young girls in the U.S.,” he said. “This is a slide I wish I could produce as a health economist more often. HPV vaccines in this population are among the most cost effective interventions we have in the U.S.“
Despite the efficacy and overall cost effectiveness of the vaccine, however, delivery and implementation of the vaccine remain a problem, said Galloway.
“We need to find better strategies to get girls and boys to take the vaccine,” she said. “In other countries, where they have school-based programs, they’re doing much better than in the U.S.”
Saturday’s plenary will feature talks on the natural history of HPV infection and cervical cancer, the natural history of oral HPV and its progression of oropharyngeal cancer and the “genetic arms race” between host and viral genomes, presented by Fred Hutch’s Dr. Harmit Malik. Vaccines will be covered in the Sunday plenary session with talks on Merkel cell carcinoma by Fred Hutch’s Dr. Paul Nghiem, an update on Australia’s HPV vaccination program and a presentation on vaccine dosage.
“There is a growing consensus of switching from three doses to two and it will be exciting to hear more about that,” said Galloway.
Finnish researcher Turunen, whose research focuses on the relationship between HPV and the Epstein-Barr virus, said he was amazed at how much the field – and the International Papillomavirus Conference -- had grown, adding that a much smaller HPV conference took place in Seattle 20 years ago.
“Both HPV researchers were there,” he quipped.
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Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has also written extensively about health issues for nbcnews.com, TODAY.com, CNN.com, MSN.com, Columns and several other publications. She also writes the breast cancer blog, doublewhammied.com.Reach her at email@example.com.
Solid tumors, such as those of cervix, head and neck, are the focus of Seattle Tumor Translational Research, a network comprised of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. STTR is bridging laboratory sciences and patient care to provide the most precise treatment options for patients with solid tumor cancers.