Innovation Hero Finalist: Mayumi Nakagawa

Innovation Hero Finalist: Mayumi Nakagawa
Mayumi Nakagawa of UAMS

For nearly two decades, Mayumi Nakagawa has focused her studies on the human papillomavirus (HPV) and ways to treat the disease.

She and her UAMS team may be closing in on the answer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, HPV is believed to be the cause of more than 40,000 new cases of cancer each year — roughly a quarter of those new cases are cervical cancer.

A pap smear with abnormal results is a possible sign of cervical pre-cancer.

Nakagawa and the group have been working on developing a new type of HPV vaccine which would regress pre-cancerous cervical lesions. For women of childbearing age, this may enable them to stay away from loop electrical excision procedure (LEEP) surgery and to avoid getting an increased risk of having premature babies, which is a known side effect of the surgery.

The therapeutic HPV vaccine Nakagawa and her team of researchers has developed is to help the cervical lesions disappear on their own.

While currently just being tested to treat cervical pre-cancer, the vaccine is expected to have similar results in treating other HPV-associated cancers.

HPV is also known to cause anal, cervical, oral, penile, rectal, vaginal and vulvar cancers.

“So, many other types of cancer may be avoided or treated with this vaccine,” Nakagawa said.

As the study is a double blind clinical trial in which participants are randomized to two treatment arms (PepCan and adjuvant only), the complete results will not be known until the study is completed. However, Nakagawa said, many participants have shown regression and avoided surgery.

UAMS is the only institution in the world which offers this vaccine, called PepCan, as a part of the Phase II clinical trial.

Nakagawa said the biggest challenge was to obtain funding from the National Cancer Institute to conduct the clinical trial.

Head and neck cancer would likely be the focus of the next trial, Nakagawa said. Compared to the goals of the cervical cancer vaccine, Nakagawa said her head and neck cancer vaccine would work to prevent the higher rate of recurrence instead of treating pre-cancer.

Safety testing of the HPV vaccine was completed in 2015.