Woman heal thyself: Hope for fighting cervical cancer

2014-08-03 15:00

There is hope for women suffering from cervical cancer – and it comes from their own tumours.

Although the treatment, which sounds more like science fiction than science, is in its early days, US researchers are optimistic about HPV-targeted (human papillomavirus-targeted) adoptive T-cell therapy.

Cervical cancer kills 3?500 women in South Africa every year and chances of survival are low, particularly if the disease is diagnosed in one of its later stages.

Scientists from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, tested this therapy on nine women with advanced cervical cancer.

Two responded very well and have remained cancer-free for more than a year. A third woman experienced a 39% reduction in her tumours, while there was little or no change in the other six patients. There were some serious side effects, too: some patients developed abnormally low numbers of blood cells.

Dr Christian Hinrichs, the study’s lead investigator, described the findings as “proof-of-principle that adoptive transfer of HPV-targeted T cells can cause complete remission of metastatic cervical cancer and that this remission can be long-lasting”.

Hinrichs urged caution in examining the results, though: “We are very early in the testing of this type of treatment. We need to treat additional patients to determine how well it works.”

The preliminary results were published in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology on June 20.

Professor Hennie Botha, the head of Gynaecological Oncology at Stellenbosch University, agreed that it was “too early to rejoice”.

But he said: “The results give hope to patients with very advanced metastatic cancer where conventional treatments are not very effective.

“At the moment the treatment is still very dangerous due to serious side effects and complications.

“It can, because of ethical considerations, only be offered to patients where all other more conventional options have failed.”

Women with advanced cervical cancer have limited treatment options.

The two standard first-line therapies – immediate and initial treatments – for cervical cancer are chemotherapy and a combination of chemotherapy and the drug Bevacizumab. With chemotherapy, women survive for an average of 13 months. With chemo and Bevacizumab, that rises to 17 months.

There are no second-line treatments available that improve patients’ chances of survival.

Each year 6?000 women in South Africa are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Local experts estimate that the number will climb significantly in the next few years because of the country’s high HIV prevalence.

HIV infection increases the risk for many types of cancer, including those associated with HPV. It’s this which causes cervical cancer.

Even if HPV-targeted adoptive T-cell therapy progresses, improves and is found to be medically sound, it will take years, if not decades, to become available here.

But there’s good news while this treatment and others are explored: cervical cancer is preventable through regular screening for HPV, and HPV vaccines are available in both the public and private sectors here.

Turning tumours into cures

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