Could cervical cancer be eradicated?

28th September 2019

Cervical cancer is the 4th most common cancer in women with over 500,000 cases diagnosed worldwide.

But the current statistics are a huge improvement on the past. In the UK, the number of new cases of cervical cancer each year has plummeted by nearly 25% in the last 25 years. And researchers predict that Australia is on track to almost completely wipe out the disease. How has this happened? Could there be a cure for cervical cancer? Let's take a closer look at what causes cervical cancer to work out how research is outsmarting it.

What causes cervical cancer?

The main cause of cervical cancer is the virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). Most people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives. But don't panic - for the majority of people it causes no serious ill effects and is cleared by the immune system quickly. However, in a small number of people HPV can linger in their bodies for many years and over time lead to the development of cervical cancer.

HPV vaccine - does it work?

Yes it does. As with most vaccines, the evidence for their success and benefit to human health is overwhelming. 5 million people each year used to die from smallpox. Now no one does. Vaccination has eradicated the disease and others are following suit. Polio is on the way out, and in some countries, measles and rubella are rarely a problem. But can a vaccination eradicate cervical cancer? Most likely, yes, and we only have to look at Australia to see the power of vaccination in action.

Eliminating cervical cancer

In 2007, Australia rolled out its national HPV vaccination programme to complement a cervical cancer screening programme that was launched in the 1990s. Today, the rate of cervical cancer has plummeted to 7 cases per 100,000 women each year, about half the global average. And it is unlikely to stop there. In 2018, researchers published a study predicting that if trends continue as they have, Australia will have effectively eliminated cervical cancer by 2066, with predicted rates to fall to 1 case per 100,000 women.

Research is the answer

Thanks to our supporters, we've been funding life-saving cancer research for 40 years, including many projects into cervical cancer. Back in the 2000s, we funded Dr Philippa O’Brien and Professor (Maria) Saveria Campo at the University of Glasgow, who found that a that a protein produced by HPV, called E5, reduces the ability of the immune system to recognise and kill infected cells.

In 2010, Professor Campo used further funding from our supporters to prove that the E5 protein works by stopping cytotoxic T cells in the immune system from recognising the virus and trying to kill it. This allows the virus to manipulate the immune system and survive much longer. These important findings have added to the pool of knowledge researchers are using to find new treatments for people with cervical cancer.