Cervical cancer, which strikes around 13,000 women a year in the U.S., is almost entirely preventable when women receive the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Driven by HPV, the disease is usually slow-growing and asymptomatic in its earliest stages. Screening with regular Pap or HPV tests can detect it early. HPV is an extremely common virus that is transmitted through direct sexual contact. It drives most cervical cancers, as well as many anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile and a growing percentage of head and neck cancers.
Thanks to screening advances, cervical cancer mortality rates in the U.S. have dropped significantly. HPV infections — and cervical cancers — are also in decline in the U.S., due to use of the HPV vaccine. Yet cervical cancer remains one of the leading causes of cancer death among women in low-resource countries.
Researchers at Fred Hutch played an integral role in identifying the link between HPV and cervical cancers and developing lifesaving HPV vaccines. Children aged 11-12 are targeted for the vaccines because the vaccines are most effective if given before a person is exposed to the virus. The vaccine can also be given to young women up to age 26 and young men through age 21.
Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Fred Hutch’s Dr. Denise Galloway and her research colleagues here and the University of Washington were key players in identifying the relationship between HPV and cervical cancer and in laying the groundwork for the development of the HPV vaccine. An extremely effective prevention strategy, this vaccine stops most of the infection’s cancer-causing strains.
Our researchers are looking at whether the HPV vaccine may also be used to treat, not just prevent, precancers driven by this virus. They are also working to determine the lowest number of effective doses of the vaccine in order to reduce costs and thereby reduce barriers to widespread vaccination.
Since most women exposed to HPV do not develop cervical cancer, other factors — such as cigarette smoking and immunosuppression — likely contribute to its development. Fred Hutch researchers continue to explore how lifestyles and behaviors work in concert with HPV to drive these cancers, and to develop ways to reduce risk.
Our scientists are also exploring genetic mutations that may contribute to the development (or prevention) of cervical cancer and examining how genes and lifestyle factors work together in the development of the disease.
Although cervical cancer’s mortality rate has dropped significantly thanks to prevention and early detection, these benefits don’t apply to all populations. Our researchers are working to reduce health disparities locally in underserved groups and globally in countries where cervical cancer remains a leading cause of death.
Fred Hutch, in conjunction with partner institutions around the country, is part of a large National Cancer Institute project to evaluate and improve the cancer screening process. Now in its second phase, the project is known as PROSPR II (Population-based Research to Optimize the Screening Process) and will focus on the challenges of screening for lung, cervical and colorectal cancers. Fred Hutch serves as the statistical coordinating center.
Clinical research is an essential part of the scientific process that leads to new treatments and better care. Clinical trials can also be a way for patients to get early access to new cutting-edge therapies. Our clinical research teams are running clinical studies on various kinds of cervical cancer.
Long time cervical cancer survivor Debbie Thomas, mother of former Seattle Seahawk Earl Thomas III, visited Fred Hutch in July 2015 to tour the campus and meet Dr. Denise Galloway, whose research pinpointed the link between the human papillomaviruses and cervical cancers and paved the way for the development of a vaccine.