Milken Institute School of Public Health Receives $2.6 Million Grant to Study Cervical Cancer Prevention Strategies in Peruvian Amazon

Media Contact: Kathy Fackelmann, kfackelmann@gwu.edu, 202-994-8354

WASHINGTON, DC (October 6, 2016)—The Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University (Milken Institute SPH) today announced receiving a $2.6 million award from the National Cancer Institute to develop cervical cancer prevention strategies in the Loreto region of the Peruvian Amazon. The project, Cancer Prevention in Loreto (CoPILOTO), aims to develop partnerships with the health systems in this region of Peru to evaluate and improve their current cervical cancer prevention programs.  The project hopes to put in place a common vision—one that ultimately would reduce the high burden of cervical cancer in Loreto.

“This first-of-a-kind study will use new evidence-based approaches to cervical cancer prevention,” says Patti Gravitt, PhD, the Principal Investigator and a Professor of Global Health at Milken Institute SPH. “Pap screening has been a mainstay of cervical cancer prevention for decades, but fails to translate in many parts of the world due to the high infrastructural requirements. We hope this effort will lead to an effective and sustainable cervical cancer prevention program in this part of Peru.”

In the United States and other developed countries, cervical cancer rates have plummeted-- mostly because many women are screened and those with an abnormal result are treated. In places like the Loreto region, however, screening tests must be simple to perform and then followed quickly with treatment. These so-called screen and treat approaches mean that more women get treatment without the delays that can allow a small pre-cancer to grow into a deadly tumor.

In this study, Gravitt and her colleagues will ask women in the Loreto region ages 18 to 64 to be placed on a cervical cancer screening registry so that they can better evaluate who is not getting screened and why. At the same time, the researchers will engage all local stakeholders, and together review the barriers to screening and treatment.

The team hopes to find out why the region has such a high cervical cancer rate and then come up with a solution. One very promising new approach would screen women in the region with a test that detects human papilloma virus (HPV), a virus that causes cervical cancer.   This screening test can even be applied to samples the women collect themselves at home.  Women that test positive would then be sent for immediate treatment, which would reduce the risk that they would go on to develop cervical cancer.

Gravitt is a molecular epidemiologist whose research has focused on HPV for most of her career, including a period where she worked as a molecular biologist in the PCR diagnostics industry. In the past, her work led to the development of a gold-standard HPV test that is now used in the United States and other countries to prevent cervical cancers.

In the just-funded five- year project, Gravitt and her team hope to put a new strategy in place to prevent cervical cancer in Loreto and then compare it to the current system in Peru. In the end, the team would produce a report that would allow public health leaders in Peru to compare the cost and benefits of the old versus a new strategy, such as the HPV-based screen and treat strategy.

“The HPV screen and treat approach could save many lives every year as the HPV test can pick up infections that can lead to cervical cancer years later,” Gravitt says. If such a strategy works in Loreto, the team would also have a blueprint for other underdeveloped parts of the world that want to switch to a better way of preventing this kind of cancer.

In addition to Gravitt, the research team includes Co-Principal Investigator Valerie Paz-Soldan at Tulane University and investigators at the Johns Hopkins University—Margaret Kosek, Pablo Yori, and Anne Rositch.