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Vaccine being developed at UAMS hopes to help treat HPV-related cancers

Researchers conduct lab work at the UAMS{ }Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, testing the efficacy of a therapeutic HPV vaccine that aims to help treat cervical pre-cancer and other HPV-related cancers. (Photo: KATV)
Researchers conduct lab work at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, testing the efficacy of a therapeutic HPV vaccine that aims to help treat cervical pre-cancer and other HPV-related cancers. (Photo: KATV)
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Researchers at UAMS are hopeful that a vaccine they're testing could become an alternative to surgery for patients with cervical pre-cancer.

A pap-smear with abnormal results is a possible sign of cervical pre-cancer.

"It's a precursor - one step before cancer," said Dr. Mayumi Nakagawa, researcher and professor of pathology at UAMS.

For nearly two decades, Nakagawa has focused her studies on the human papillomavirus and ways to treat the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the human papillomavirus or HPV, is believed to be the cause of more than 40,000 new cases of cancer each year - roughly a quarter of those new cases are cervical cancer.

While LEEP surgery (loop electrical excision procedure) is effective at removing cervical dysplasia, the procedure for women still looking to conceive also more than doubles their chances of delivering pre-term babies. It's why Nakagawa and a team of researchers have developed a therapeutic HPV vaccine to help pre-cancerous cervical lesions disappear on their own.

"This one is for people who already have HPV infection, have developed pre-cancer," said Nakagawa, setting her vaccine apart from already existing HPV vaccines that help prevent the virus in adolescents beginning to be sexually active. "We're trying to stimulate the immune response so the pre-cancer would regress on its own so the woman can avoid getting surgical treatment."

A double-blind study is currently in phase two, testing the drug's efficacy in a sampling of 80 women. Safety testing of the vaccine was completed in 2015.

A screening visit, which includes questionnaire and biopsy, will help determine if patients actually have HSIL or pre-cancer. If the criteria are met, the test includes four vaccinations that are three weeks apart, followed by a 12-month observation period.

"At 12 months we take four pieces of cervix to see if the pre-cancer is still there or not," said Nakagawa. "If it's gone, then she's discharged from the study. If it's still there, the study would provide for the standard surgical treatment and then she would be discharged to her own doctors from that point on."

Nakagawa's vaccine, while currently just being tested to treat cervical pre-cancer, is expected to have similar results in treating other HPV-associated cancers.

"HPV causes cancer of the head and neck, vulva, penis - so it can eventually be adapted to both men and women. It's just that for clinical trial we have to focus on a specific area," said Nakagawa.

Head and neck cancer is the next likely the next trial to be conducted, according to Nakagawa. Compared to its goal with cervical cancer, Nakagawa said her vaccine would work to prevent head and neck cancer's higher rate of recurrence instead of treating pre-cancer.

"Either way it's stimulating one's own immune response to the virus, so we can naturally treat the pre-cancer from developing into cancer, or cancer from coming back in the case of head and neck," said Nakagawa.

The study is still looking for participants. Women between the ages of 18-50 who were recently told they have high-grade dysplasia are encouraged to apply.

If you're interested in participating, contact Dr. Benjamin Lieblong or Hannah Coleman at 501-526-7657, or you can e-mail the study coordinators at

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