HPV-Associated Cervical Cancer

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, so over the next few weeks the Women’s Health Research Institute will be posting a series of blogs related to this important topic in women’s health.

Did you know that that over 90% of cases of cervical cancer in the United States are caused by human papilloma virus (HPV) infection [1]? Below, we will take a closer look at the biology behind HPV associated cervical cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection which is spread by vaginal, anal, or oral sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control, HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will become infected at some point in their lives. Over 90% of people who become infected with HPV do not have any symptoms and the infection naturally resolves within 2 years [2]. However, certain strains of HPV can cause genital warts, while other highrisk strains such as HPV and are associated with cervical, anal, and oral cancer.

How does HPV cause cancer?

HPV infects epithelial cells which serve as a barrier between us and the environment. Sexualcontact introduces HPV to epithelial cells which line the vagina, cervix, anus, penis, or mouth. High-risk strains of HPV produce viral proteins which change the rate at which our cells grow and divide. Most of the time, our immune system can detect and destroy infected cells. However, in some cases HPV infected cells avoid detection and continue to grow uncontrollably. This leads to precancerous growths, and ultimately cancer.

How is HPV detected?

Currently, there are only methods to detect cervical HPV infection. Cells are collected from the cervix, similar to a pap smear, and tested for the DNA of high-risk HPV strains.

Can HPV infection be prevented?

As previously mentioned, HPV is transmitted through sexual contact. Limiting the number of sexual partners and practicing safe sex can reduce your risk of contracting HPV. There are currently three FDA approved vaccines which can prevent high-risk HPV infection, but they cannot treat any current HPV infections. HPV vaccines are recommended for men and women under the age of 26, who did not receive the vaccine as a child or teen. 

For additional information on HPV and HPV-associated cervical cancer, consider checking out the following resources:

Center for Disease Control- HPV and Cancer Center for Disease Control - Gential HPV Infection American College of Obstretricians and Gynecologists - HPV FAQs References:
  1. Center for Disease Control
  2. Ho et al. N Engl J Med 1998;338(7);423-8

A Historical Look at Cervical Cancer Prevention

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, so over the next few weeks the Women's Health Research Institute will be posting a series of blogs related to this important topic in women's health.

Cervical cancer used to be one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths for women in the United States. Yet, thanks to widespread screening and timely detection and treatment, cervical cancer death rates have dropped over 50% in the last 40 years [1]. Cervical cancer screening is done by a pap smear, also known as a pap test. During a pap smear, cells are gently scraped from the cervix and later visualized under a microscope to detect pre-cancerous or cancerous changes. This screening method is easy for clinicians to perform and is relatively cost-effective. Many women recognize that pap smears are an important part of their routine health and wellness, yet few know the history behind this valuable diagnostic tool.

The "pap" smear is named after Dr. George Papanicolaou, a physician-scientist who is credited with the discovery of the test in the early 20th century. Papanicolaou received his medical degree from the University of Athens and went on to pursue a PhD in zoology from the University of Munich [2]. He emigrated to the United States in 1913 and shortly after accepted positions within the Pathology Department at New York University and Anatomy Department at Cornell University Medical College [2]. His research focused on the cellular changes of the reproductive tract. In 1928, Papanicolaou found that cancerous cells from the cervix could be detected by smearing a swab from the cervix onto a microscope slide [3]. The technique did not attract the attention of the medical community, however, until the 1943 publication of his book, Diagnosis of Uterine Cancer by Vaginal Smear [4].

In 1960, Papanicolaou moved to Florida where he served as the director of the Dade County Cancer Institute. Following his death in 1962, the institute was renamed the Papanicolaou Cancer Research Institute [2]. Throughout his career, Papanicolaou received numerous professional accolades and honorary degrees for his work [2]. In 1978, the United States Postal Service commissioned a 13 cent-postage stamp in his honor. Today, the Florida-based philanthropy, the Papanicolaou Corps for Cancer Research, supports cancer research in his name [5]. To read more about the life and career of Dr. Papanicolaou click here (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4613936/).

References:
1. American Cancer Society 
2. Tan and Tatsumura. Singapore Med J. 2015 Oct; 56(10): 586–587.
3. Papanicolaou, G. New Cancer Diagnosis, Proc. Third Race Betterment Conf., Jan. 2-6, 1928, 528-534.
4. Papanicolaou and Traut. Diagnosis of Uterine Cancer by Vaginal Smear, New York, The Commonwealth Fund, 1943.
5. The Papanicolaous Corps

 

Healthy Holiday Habits

The holidays can be one of the busiest times of the year, so take a few moments to review these tips to ensure you and your loved ones have a safe and healthy holiday season:

1. Wash your hands often This may seem like a "no-brainer," but hand washing may be one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of infections like the common cold or flu. It's important to wash your hands any time you may come into contact with infectious agents like bacteria or viruses. This may include after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, using the rest room, touching household pets, preparing food, before you eat, or after you have touched garbage. Proper hand washing technique includes washing with soap and water, while scrubbing them together for at least 20 seconds. If you're in a situation where you do not have access to soap and running water, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are the next best option.

2. Handle and prepare food safely Whether you're in charge of preparing a holiday ham or simply slicing vegetables, proper food handling techniques help prevent the risk of food-related illness. Be sure to wash your hands prior to working with food, and in between handling raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs. In addition, make sure that all surfaces which come in contact with food are cleaned thoroughly, such as cutting boards, knives, or counter tops. Fresh fruit and vegetables should be rinsed prior to use and all meats be cooked to the appropriate temperature before serving. Also, to prevent holiday leftovers from spoiling, refrigerate foods promptly and check food storage guidelines.

3. Stay warm If you plan on staying indoors this holiday season, be sure to check that your heating system is in good working condition and your fire and carbon monoxide detectors are functional. For those headed outdoors, wear appropriate clothing such as winter coats, hats, gloves, and boots which can help prevent frostbite and hypothermia. For those of you who may be traveling by car, consider packing a winter emergency kit which includes blankets, food and water, a flashlight, first-aid kit, and extra auto accessories. Weather forecasts may change rapidly, so heed weather alters and warnings in order to stay safe!

4. Eat healthy and be active It may be easy to over-indulge during the holidays as savory meals and sweet treats are a staple at festive gatherings. However, by practicing portion control and making healthy food choices, the holiday season does not need to be associated with an expanding waist-line and weight gain. Consider swapping out sugary-desserts for fresh fruits, or limiting your intake of foods rich in fats or salt.

5. Manage stress The added pressures of travel, last-minute shopping, and entertaining during the holiday season may cause some increased stress. Stress can affect both our emotional and physical health, so we encourage you to take care of yourself by eating well-balanced meals, getting enough sleep, talking with friends and family, and taking time to relax.

Interested in additional health tips? Check out "The 12 Ways to Health," holiday song by the Centers for Disease Control! It features the topics we've discussed above, plus some additional healthy habits.

References:
1. Centers for Disease Control

Women's Health Research Institute 10th Anniversary Celebration

In 2007, the Women’s Health Research Institute was founded as an interdisciplinary center designed to accelerate the rate of discovery in the sciences that impact women’s health and well-being. This year, join the WHRI as we celebrate a decade of milestones in sex-inclusive science and women’s health research.

Since its inception, the WHRI has:  

  • Championed for sex-inclusive policies, resulting in the 2016 National Institutes of Health policy to consider sex as a biological variable
  • Matched thousands of women in to clinical research trials at Northwestern University and beyond through the Illinois Women’s Health Registry
  • Supported sex-inclusive research at Northwestern University through the establishment of the Pioneer Awards
  • Authored over 900 blogs, 75 newsletters, and numerous peer-reviewed publications dedicated to women’s health and sex-inclusive science
  • Hosted more than 90 monthly Women’s Health Research Forums which create awareness of the roles of sex and gender play in health and disease
  • Mentored hundreds of young women who will lead the next generation in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine through the Women’s Health Science Program

On Tuesday, December 12th, the WHRI will host a 10th Anniversary Celebration and Luncheon. WHRI Founder and Director, Dr. Teresa Woodruff, will give a special lecture reflecting on the past 10 years of the Institute and its vision for the years to come.

Click here to register for the WHRI 10th Anniversary Lecture and Celebration! 

 

Help us celebrate our 10th anniversary by making a gift to support sex-inclusive science and improve the health and well-being of all people. 

 

WHRI Recognizes World AIDS Day

Each year, December 1st is recognized as World AIDS Day. Although the rates of new HIV infections have continued to decline within the United States, HIV and AIDS remains a global public health concern. According to the World Health Organization, 36.7 million people across the world are living with HIV, 47% of whom are women.

Women with HIV may face a host of unique health challenges compared to men. For example, women living with HIV have gynecological issues such as menstrual cycle changes, increased risk of certain sexually transmitted diseases, higher rates of vaginal infections, and early entry into menopause [1]. Also, women infected with HIV are 5 times more likely to develop cervical cancer and require additional screenings [2]. In addition, several anti-retroviral drugs commonly used to treat HIV, such as nevirapine and ritonavir, may cause more adverse drug reactions in women compared to men [1].

To learn more about HIV and AIDS consider visiting the following national and local resources:
Centers for Disease Control
Northwestern Medicine HIV Center
Chicago Department of Public Health – Free STI/HIV/AIDS Testing and Treatment
AIDS Foundation of Chicago
Howard Brown Health

References:
1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
2. National Cancer Institute

 

NIH Shares Resource for Sex-Inclusive Science

The National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health posted video recordings from the Sex as a Biological Variable Workshop held last month on October 26th and 27th. The videos feature sessions which focus on sex differences in brain function and behavior, gene expression, and within animal models. The keynote lecture, “Sex-specific risk for cardiovascular dysfunction and cognitive decline,” was presented by Dr. Virginia Miller from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, and can be found on the recording from Day 1.

Click on the links below to access the full recordings from the workshop:
Day 1: Thursday, October 26th, 2017
Day 2: Friday, October 27th, 2017

Are you looking for an opportunity to learn more about sex-based research? Consider attending the 2nd Annual Symposium on Sex Inclusion in Biomedical Research, held at Northwestern University on January 25th, 2018! Click here for more information

Clinical Trials Still Fail to Analyze Data by Sex

Over the past two decades, there have been significant efforts to improve the participation of women in clinical trial research. However, a new report shows that even while women may be represented in clinical trials, the data obtained from both male and female study participants are rarely analyzed by sex [1].

The study conducted in collaboration by the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Research on Women and Gender and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Women's Health Research, reviewed the results of 107 NIH-funded, randomized controlled trials published in 2015 which included both male and female participants. They found that 72% of clinical trials failed to analyze their data by sex, report any sex-specific outcomes of their work, nor provide an explanation as to why sex was excluded in their analyses. In addition, this represents an increase in the lack of sex-specific reporting from 67% in 2004 and 64% in 2009.

Failing to analyze clinical research data by sex has significant implications for both men and women. When clinical research data is analyzed by sex, it can identify key differences which impact health and disease, giving us the ability to design and develop individualized therapies or treatments. To encourage sex-based analyses, the study authors recommend that researchers have open discussions regarding the influences of sex and gender, call upon journals to improve publishing guidelines for sex-specific reporting, and a revision of NIH-grant scoring policies based on study design and analyses.

To learn more about sex-inclusive research visit sexinclusion.northwestern.edu or consider registering for the 2nd Annual Symposium on Sex Inclusion in Biomedical Research!

References:
1. Gellar et al. Acad Med. 2017 Oct 19. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002027. [Epub ahead of print].

High Blood Pressure May Lead to Increased Risk of Dementia in Women

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, affects about 75 million Americans – or approximately 1 out of every 3 adults [1]. It can be a serious health condition, as high blood pressure can increase the risk for cardiovascular and kidney disease. However, a new research suggests that women with high blood pressure early in life might be at risk for developing other health complications such as dementia [2].

A study published in the journal Neurology, examined the health records of over 5,600 men and women over a 50-year time period for evidence of high blood pressure in early- to mid-adulthood and a diagnosis of dementia after the age of 60. The authors found that women who developed high blood pressure in their 40s had a 73% higher risk of developing dementia later in life, compared to women with normal blood pressure. Interestingly, this increase in risk was sex-specific, as it was not seen in men.

While other research has shown that high blood pressure is a risk factor for developing dementia [reviewed in 3], this is the first study to demonstrate a significant sex-difference in dementia risk for women with high blood pressure at a young age. Additional research is needed to determine how high blood pressure, over the course of a lifespan, affects men and women differently.

References:
1. Centers for Disease Control
2. Gilsanz et al., Neurology. 2017 Oct 4. pii: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000004602.
3. Kennelly et al., Ther Adv Neurol Disord. 2009 Jul; 2(4): 241–260.

Searle Center to Host STEMinist Event Series

The Northwestern University Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching is hosting a series of events this October which will discuss the social and cultural contexts which shape the experiences of women in male-dominated STEM fields. The 4-part series entitled, “Topics in STEMinism” will feature the following:

  • The Status of Women Scientists - October 4th, 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM
  • Preparing for and Navigating the Job Market - October 11th, 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM
  • Women in STEM Careers Panel – October 18th, 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM
  • Exploring Critical and/or Feminist STEM Teaching & Research – October 25th, 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM

The events will be held on the Evanston and Chicago campuses, and are also accessible online.   

Evanston Campus Location:
TGS Commons
2122 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60201

Chicago Campus Location:
TGS Abbott Hall Conference Room
Abbott Hall, Room 332, 710 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60611

For registration and additional information, click here.

Interested in more events for Women in STEM? The WHRI is hosting Coffee and Conversations with NU Faculty on October 18th and 26th. Click here to learn more!