A new vaccine may hold promise for millions of women who have the human papillomavirus and its accompanying often-painful lesions of precancerous tissue.
In a small study of 20 women, researchers found the HPV vaccine soothed symptoms and shrank or completely removed lesions in 79 percent of patients one year after treatment. Nearly half of the women showed no sign of the disease two years after the shots.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine Wednesday, is one of several research attempts to curtail the HPV infection after it has already attacked the cervix or vulva.
For women who have undergone the existing treatment to remove the lesions -- by scalpel, by lasers, by freezing or removing lesions with what's known as a loop electrosurgical excision procedure -- the idea of a therapeutic vaccine is all too welcome.
"The stress was maddening, recovering from the surgery was worse than I ever could have imagined -- horrendous," Kathy Howe said of her 2006 diagnosis of precancerous lesions on her cervix caused by HPV.
Howe wrote about her cervical cancer ordeal on her blog, Kazoofus.com.
"It was a very long process, over a year and a half of tests, questions and not many clear answers as a result of all the tests," she said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that half of all men and women contract genital HPV infections during their lifetimes and about 10 percent of women with aggressive strains of HPV will develop long-term infections that put them at risk for cervical cancer.
In less than two years, Howe had four pap smears, two diagnostic procedures called coloscopies and two loop procedures, which entailed transmitting an electrical current through a wire loop to remove the precancerous tissues. By October 2007, doctors decided to remove her cervix.
That kind of trouble and cost is exactly what researchers are trying to avoid.
"We hoped for this good response and, in fact, expected it," said the co-author of the paper, Dr. Gemma Kenter of the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
Kenter had done previous research in women's immune response to HPV infections.
The vaccine used in Kenter's research is different from preventive shots on the market, such as Gardasil, so while the research is promising, he and his colleagues still recommend preventing the disease rather than treating it later.
Because the vaccine functions differently, Kenter's colleague on the study points out that their research shows promise for treating a variety of diseases from HPV, even in the throat.
"Yes, I feel that there is hope for the millions of people who are already infected with HPV but it should be needless to say that this is just a first trial and a real efficacy trial still has to be done," said Sjoerd H. van der Burg, a co-author on the paper and a researcher in the Clinical Oncology Department of Leiden University.
It can take a decade or more for success found in such a small study to translate into a vaccine on the market, according to Dr. Kevin Ault, associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Ault said the study was "very well done" but cautioned that with such a small study, it's difficult to know the potential side effects of the vaccine.