Eliminating Cervical Cancer

Roche Tissue Diagnostics Adds New Screening to U.S. Efforts

By June C. Hussey

Every 60 seconds, someone’s mom, wife, sister, aunt or daughter is diagnosed with cervical cancer somewhere in the world. Before you finish reading this article, cervical cancer will have taken another woman’s life. 

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Local leading scientists want to make sure everyone is aware of how to prevent this disease. Dr. Eslie Dennis, VP of medical affairs at Roche Tissue Diagnostics, is one of them.

When Dennis joined Roche Tissue Diagnostics in Oro Valley eight years ago, she became an integral part of a team working with founder Dr. Thomas Grogan to help develop innovative tests to diagnose cancer and identify treatment options, and also to prevent cancer. 

Today, this physician-turned-scientist and her Roche colleagues are passionate about educating consumers about the importance of screening and cervical cancer prevention.

Simultaneously, they are training healthcare practitioners how to use Roche’s sophisticated suite of cervical cancer diagnostic tools. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the latest test in the Roche portfolio for use in the country. 

“Coming from Africa, it’s more than a passion for me,” Dennis said. “Sadly, I’ve seen too many women presenting in advanced stages of cervical cancer with little hope for survival. Particularly in developing countries where there is limited access to preventative and early detection measures, cervical cancer is often not identified until it has reached an advanced stage.”

Access to treatment of late-stage cervical cancer – such as surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy – is also limited, resulting in higher death rates in these countries. If cervical cancer is caught early the outlook is good, with an estimated five-year survival rate of 92%. For women with advanced disease, however, the five-year survival rate is 17%.

Dennis emphasized that nearly every cervical cancer diagnosis and death is preventable. The latest World Health Organization statistics rank cervical cancer as the fourth leading cause of cancer and cancer-related deaths in women globally, primarily because of lack of education and access to healthcare.

 Know the Root Cause

Human papillomavirus is a common sexually transmitted infection estimated to affect over 80% of sexually active men and women at some point in their lifetimes. HPV is also known to be the central causative agent of cervical cancer.

“HPV is very common in both men and women. It knows no socioeconomic barriers. There should be no stigma associated with getting a vaccination or a screening. The more we can educate people about this, the better,” Dennis said.

Vaccinations

Primary prevention of cervical cancer is through vaccination against HPV. Available since 2006, HPV vaccines are typically administered to girls and boys starting at age 11 or 12. Dennis said it’s important for adolescents to finish all their rounds of HPV vaccinations prior to becoming sexually active before possible exposure to HPV.

According to the WHO, global coverage of vaccinations is currently estimated at 15%. The global group is now calling for 90% of girls to be fully vaccinated by age 15 by 2030 as part of a triple intervention strategy that includes vaccinations, screenings and treatment.

Roche Hones Screenings

Cervical cancer won’t be eliminated by vaccines alone. Screenings and treatment also play big roles.

Since the Pap test was invented in the middle of the 20th century, the incidence of cervical cancer has decreased by 70% in those countries where it has been implemented. During the 1980s the link between HPV infection and cervical cancer was identified, which paved the way for both vaccines and new screening tests. For its part, Roche is adding sophisticated, next-generation, biomarker-based diagnostic tools now available worldwide that detect high-risk HPV infections and also identify precancerous changes where intervention can prevent cancer from developing.

Roche’s CINtec PLUS Cytology test, approved by the FDA in March 2020, allows labs analyzing cells to more clearly identify which patients have cells that may transform into cancers. This is important information because there are 150 forms of HPV, but only 12 are known to cause cervical cancer, Dennis said. Knowing that a woman has an infection with one of the high-risk HPV types is important. However, most HPV-positive women will not develop cervical cancer, so a triage step is necessary to identify who is at higher risk and needs immediate intervention and who is at lower risk and can be given more time to resolve on their own. The CINtec PLUS Cytology test provides greater confidence in determining who should have immediate intervention and may reduce overtreatment of women who have HPV, but are unlikely to progress to cancer. With increasing access to such diagnostic tools, more doctors will have the ability to accurately and objectively analyze pre-cancerous cells and treat their patients accordingly.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends all women aged 21 to 65 be screened for cervical cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends screening beginning at age 25. WHO’s goal is for 70% of the world’s women to be screened twice, by age 35 and again by age 45, by 2030.

Reducing Cancer Worldwide

Work at the Oro Valley diagnostics company has global implications, particularly in places without good healthcare access. Dennis experienced this disparity first-hand as a physician working in Africa.

“As a physician, it is immensely frustrating when you have little to offer your patients,” she said. “That’s what led me into the biotech industry. As much as I miss one-on-one interaction with patients, to get to join a global research and development organization where I can be part of a team that is actually impacting the lives of millions of people worldwide, to me that is so compelling and so exciting.”

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