USC researchers strike blow in the battle against cancer

New discovery could aid women suffering from cervical cancer

In the ongoing fight to beat cancer, a team of University of South Carolina scientists have made a discovery that could lead to better treatment and outcomes for a significant killer of women.

Carolyn Banister (USC photo)

The team, led by assistant research professor Carolyn Banister and associate professor Phillip Buckhaults, has discovered a new subtype of cervical cancer that affects 8 percent of patients. The study outlining the team’s findings was published online January 6 in the journal Oncotarget, and was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Unlike most cervical cancers — primarily driven by the human papillomavirus — this previoiusly unknown subtype is initiated by the HPV virus but does not sustain the cancer’s growth. The finding, scientists said, suggests that patients with this subtype may respond better to alternative treatments that target their tumors’ unique genetic structure, which is different than most other cervical cancers.

“Cervical cancer patients are currently treated as a uniform group based on chemotherapy and radiation regimens that help the largest percentage of people; however, one third of these patients are not helped by standard therapies,” Banister said.

“We have discovered the existence of a subgroup of cervical cancers with very different genetic features. These women may benefit from alternative treatments that are not usually given to cervical cancer patients,” she said.

HPV vaccines have been available since 2006 and act as effective tools to prevent cervical cancer. However, because many people remain unvaccinated and some cervical cancer patients do not respond to standard treatment, identifying the most effective treatment options remains a vital goal.

Congress designated January as Cervical Health Awareness Month, and the American Cancer Society estimated that nearly 13,000 American women would be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer in 2016, with more than 4,000 women dying from the disease.

According to 2013 data from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, South Carolina ranked 15th in the nation for cervical cancer incidence and 12th for cervical cancer deaths. Across the state, inpatient hospitalizations related to cervical cancer cost more than $6.6 million in 2014.

The researchers from the University of South Carolina College of Pharmacy and School of Medicine discovered this new subtype by analyzing data from 255 cervical cancer samples in the Cancer Genome Atlas, a large-scale federally funded project launched in 2005 by the National Cancer Institute and National Human Genome Research Institute.

Their analysis revealed that the samples fell into two categories: an HPV-active class (high expression rates of two HPV cancer genes) and an HPV-inactive class (low or zero expression rates of the two HPV cancer genes).

Previous studies by USC researchers had identified an HPV-inactive class in head and neck cancers and suggested that a similar mechanism could exist in cervical cancer. This latest research confirmed that suspicion and discovered molecular genetic mechanisms that drive the evolution of HPV-inactive cervical cancers.

According to the American Cancer Society, Hispanic and African-American women are more likely to develop cervical cancer than whites in the United States, and Banister said she will be conducting genomic sequencing research at USC to explore the underlying reason for this racial disparity.

The USC researchers involved in this study, in addition to Banister and Buckhaults, were Kim E. Creek, Lucia Pirisi, and Changlong Liu.

The full text of the study, “Identification and characterization of HPV-independent cervical cancers,” can be found here.

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