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How biotech is making cervical cancer a thing of the past

Clary Estes
Clary Estes
January 28, 2022

Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of death for women in America – and the human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer. 

Luckily, cervical cancer mortality rates in the U.S. have fallen steadily since their height in the 1970s. Education and increased access to Pap tests have allowed physicians to spot and treat HPV-related cervical cancer early. 

As we come to the end of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month (January) and HPV Prevention Week (January 23-29), we recognize the biotech-driven advances in treatment and prevention of both HPV and the cancers it can cause. 

The Gardasil vaccine is saving lives

One biotech advancement has nearly eradicated cervical cancer in some parts of the world: the Gardasil vaccine. 

Developed by Merck, Gardasil was a revelation when it hit the market. Targeting nine strains of HPV that cause several cancers in both women and men, the vaccine has led to astonishing health gains. In the UK, cervical cancer has been “almost eliminated” in women born after September 1, 1995, and Gardasil has reduced the likelihood of women ages 9-45 of contracting cervical cancer by as much as 87%.

Cervical cancer remains the fourth most common cancer for women

But while cervical cancer is almost “completely preventable…more than 10 women die from the disease each day in the U.S., half of whom are in their 50’s or younger,” says the American Cancer Society. The organization projects 14,100 new cases of invasive cervical cancer diagnoses and 4,280 deaths in the U.S. in 2022. 

While there have been encouraging gains in developed countries, cervical cancer remains the fourth most common cancer for women globally. As such, access to and availability of the Gardasil vaccine (as well as regular Pap tests for women) remains important. We can learn a lot from partnerships like that between BIO Ventures for Global Health, the Rwandan Biomedical Center and Rwandan Ministry of Health, which are collaborating to develop and implement an “educate, screen, treat (EST)” program for the 185,000 women in Rwanda’s Bugesera District. In the project’s first 25 days, more than 6,000 women were screened for HPV, and hundreds referred for further testing or biopsy, among other gains.

New cervical cancer treatment provides hope

For a percentage of women, cervical cancer becomes metastatic with disease progression on or after chemotherapy. To date, there has been no standard of care after progression on first-line treatment. However, biotech is addressing this issue, as well. 

The FDA recently approved tisotumab vedotin, or Tivdak, the first and only approved antibody-drug conjugate used to treat recurrent cervical cancer, developed by BIO members Genmab and Seagen. Based on clinical trials, Tivdak has an objective response rate of 24%. “Of this, 7% of patients achieved a complete response, while 17% of patients achieved a partial response. The median [duration of response] observed in patients was 8.3 months,” reports Clinical Trials Arena.

Collaborating to prevent and eliminate cervical cancer

When it comes to cervical cancer, prevention is key – and we have tools to prevent and someday eliminate this disease. 

The World Health Organization recently launched its Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer – which aims to have 90% of girls fully vaccinated with the HPV vaccine by the age of 15, and 70% of women screened using a high-performance test by age 35 and again by 45. In addition, WHO aims to treat 90% of women diagnosed with cervical disease.

There is still a great deal of work to make cervical cancer a thing of the past, but with cooperation and biotech innovation, we can work together to make that future a reality.