Since the 1950s, the Pap test has dramatically reduced rates of cervical cancer in the United States. But many American women—and millions more throughout the world—don’t have Pap test screenings. In fact, in many developing countries, cervical cancer is still the leading cause of cancer-related death for women.
Gynecologic oncologist Rahel Ghebre, M.D., envisions a way to change that.
Thanks to the National Institutes of Health’s Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) program, Ghebre will explore a new way to test for the viruses that can cause cervical cancer. The Deborah E. Powell Center for Women’s Health will receive $2.2 million over five years in BIRCWH funds; Ghebre, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health, is one of five promising young faculty members at the University to receive a BIRCWH grant for her research.
Ghebre’s idea hinges on the fact that most cervical cancer is caused by certain high-risk human papillomaviruses (HPVs). She proposes to “move cervical cancer screening out of the clinic” by enabling patients to take their own secretion samples at home and then send them out for HPV screening.
Ghebre hopes to reach millions of women who don’t undergo regular Pap tests. “People are now so much more knowledgeable and willing to participate in their own health care,” she says. “I do think we’re in a new era.”
To design her trials, Ghebre is working with mentors in other departments and disciplines, including Timothy Church, Ph.D., a professor of environmental health sciences in the School of Public Health (SPH); DeAnn Lazovich, M.P.H., Ph.D., a cancer epidemiologist and associate professor in the SPH; and Sharon Allen, M.D., Ph.D., a professor in the Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.
“It’s a little daunting,” Ghebre says. “Some of the people I’m working with have publications numbering in the hundreds, but they’re really accessible and encouraging.”
The University was one of ten institutions nationwide to win a BIRCWH award in 2007.
“The reason the U was so competitive is that, through the Powell Center, we already had a lot of key components in place,” including mentorship support, says Powell Center director Nancy Raymond, M.D. “I think interdisciplinary research is where health care needs to go. We’re a step ahead of the curve.”