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Vaccine helps body fight cervical cancer

By WES ALLISON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2000


TAMPA -- Researchers are zeroing in on a vaccine for cervical cancer that uses the body's own immune system to fight the virus believed to cause it.

Dr. Terri Pustilnik, a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and her team have concocted the vaccine from genetically altered immune-system cells. It is designed to spark the immune system to attack the human papillomavirus, called HPV, which is linked to the vast majority of cervical cancer cases.

"If we treat the virus, then we shouldn't have to treat the cancer," Pustilnik said.

Pustilnik presented her work Sunday during a panel discussion on gynecological cancers at the American Cancer Society's annual science writers conference. It is being held in Tampa.

The vaccine has worked superbly in mice, and this fall she hopes to conduct the first small-scale human trials on women who already have cervical cancer.

HPV is a common virus that is usually transmitted during sexual intercourse, and it has been closely linked to the development of pre-cancerous and cancerous lesions of the cervix.

The vaccine is made from immune system cells that have been impregnated with a mutated gene from the HPV virus. When it is injected into the patient, researchers think, it will spur the immune system to attack the virus.

Pustilnik said the phase-one trial this fall will involve only about a dozen women and primarily will check the vaccine's safety. Later trials would evaluate its effectiveness.

Cervical cancer will strike almost 13,000 women American women this year, and 4,600 will die from it. The prevalence of Pap smears has made it one of the most treatable cancers in the United States and other industrialized nations, but it remains a real scourge in other countries. Worldwide, 500,000 women will get it this year.

Dr. Carolyn Runowicz, an expert in gynecological cancers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and the chairman of Sunday's women's cancers panel, said the research is promising.

"Once you understand the genetics, you then can begin to figure out treatment and, more importantly in my mind, prevention," Runowicz said.

Also Sunday, the American Cancer Society announced it will launch a major advertising campaign to educate patients and their doctors about the need to screen for colorectal cancers.

Dr. Gerald L. Woolam, president of the society, and his colleagues said primary care physicians bear much of the blame for low rate of colorectal screening in the United States.

Recent studies have shown that most people will submit to whatever tests their doctors recommend, but doctors don't push it.

Only 30 percent of people over age 50 are screened regularly, and the numbers are lower among the poor and minorities.

Colorectal cancer, if caught early, can usually be treated successfully, but only about a third of cases are discovered in early stages. This year, about 130,000 will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 56,000 will die from it. Only lung cancer is deadlier.

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