Over 13,000 people are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, making it the fourth most common cancer in the world. As the most common HPV-related cancer, proper screening and vaccination are vital for prevention.
Early detection increases the potential for cervical cancer treatment success. Better detection and treatment rely on continued research and clinical trials to help identify the signs and risk factors sooner. In light of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month this January, we share some of the most recent highlights of cervical cancer research.
How Do We Reach a Cervical Cancer Diagnosis?
Two types of HPV lead to 70% of cervical cancer diagnoses and pre-cancerous lesions, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Medical professionals can run diagnostic tests to determine whether a patient has HPV or cervical cancer. The tests they use depends on:
- Cancer type
- Patient age
- Overall patient health
- Results of any previous medical tests conducted
A doctor will most likely start with a bimanual pelvic exam if cervical cancer is suspected. The doctor conducts the physical exam to check for abnormalities in the cervix, uterus, ovaries, vagina, and other areas. They will then open the vaginal walls with a speculum to look inside and perform an internal exam.
Often, at the same time as the bimanual exam, the doctor will do a Pap test. In this case, they scrape the outside of the cervix and vagina to take a cell sample from the area, which they later test. Similar tests include the HPV typing test, which checks for HPV, and colposcopies to magnify cervix cells and give a better view of the area.
The doctor may also do a colposcopy to take a biopsy, so they can analyze your cells and check for cancerous growth. From here, the doctor may recommend the use of imaging technology, like X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and PET scans to check internal organs for growths.
How Far Have We Come with Cervical Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment?
Scientists have made many discoveries over the past 15 years that have led to preventative measures and treatment methods for cervical cancer, including the HPV vaccine. We continuously work to improve these methods and develop new and better ones.
Scientists and medical professionals have improved Pap tests to test for cancerous cells specifically. Now, in addition to the traditional Pap test, we have a liquid-based cytology test. This test preserves the sample, so we can test for HPV without taking additional samples from the patient. We also use computer screening to check for cancerous cells.
Many tools aid in the cervical cancer screening process and increase our ability to offer preventative care. One of the most important tools for prevention and detection is education. That’s why we encourage HPV vaccination in teens and Pap smears every 3-5 years.
What Can We Expect from Cervical Cancer Research?
The National Institute of Health (NIH) has conducted several cervical cancer and HPV clinical trials worldwide to study and test new treatments. Meanwhile, the American Cancer Society (ACS) is developing and improving detection and treatment for cervical cancer with diagnostic tools and new or modified therapies.
The ACS developed the sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) to check for lymph nodes where cancer has spread. During this procedure, a doctor injects blue dye into the tumor. That dye contains a radioactive tracer, which highlights lymph nodes once it drains from the cancer site. A surgeon will then remove those lymph nodes to prevent the further spread of cancer.
The ACS has also created immune checkpoint inhibitors, which strengthen the body’s immune response to cancer. Doctors use this treatment when the body’s own immunity cannot keep up with fighting the disease.
While targeted therapy is evolving to increase treatment options for cervical cancer patients, there’s also been improvements in the HPV vaccine against the E7 protein, which has worked to shrink tumors.
What’s in the Works for Cervical Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment?
The ACS has begun conducting studies to see if immunotherapy works in combination with chemotherapy or chemoradiation. Right now, we only have one immunotherapy drug regularly used to treat advanced cervical cancer. However, continued studies involving targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and vaccines have begun to improve the outlook for cervical cancer patients.
Ongoing clinical trials for cervical cancer treatments are studying nivolumab to determine its effectiveness for patients whose cancer has grown, spread, or returned. Alongside these trials, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has supported Phase II clinical trials for the treatment of rare tumors.
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