Saturday, October 22, 2016

HPV Vaccination Update

My cancer is one of the very few types that have a known, direct cause: Human Papillomavirus or HPV. Most people are infected with HPV at least once in their lifetime. Most infections clear on their own. Some infections don't, and uncleared infections with certain strains of the virus turn into cancer. It's the primary cause of cervical cancer. It's also becoming the leading cause of oral cancers like mine.

Since 2006, we have had a vaccine for HPV. It is the only preventive cancer vaccine we have. The CDC recommends that all children aged 11-12 be vaccinated. Vaccinations are recommended for women up to age 29 and men up to age 21.

Vaccination rates are still way too low. Here are the latest stats from the CDC:

In 2015, among males, coverage with ≥1 HPV vaccine dose was 49.8% and with ≥3 doses was 28.1%; among females coverage with ≥1 dose was 62.8% and with ≥3 doses was 41.9%

Even at those disappointing vaccination rates, the vaccine is already having an impact:

HPV vaccine is having a big impact, study shows (CBS News, February 22, 2016)
More evidence that the HPV vaccine works (Incidental Economist, October 11, 2016)

Ultimately, if every teen were vaccinated, almost all cervical cancers and many oral cancers would disappear. Pap smears would become either unnecessary or at least recommended at longer intervals. That's already starting to happen.

Cervical cancer screening could be less frequent, start later (Harvard Gazette, October 17, 2016)

In studies investigating why vaccination rates are low, the number one reason given by parents is "my pediatrician didn't recommend it." The number one reason pediatricians give for not recommending the vaccination is discomfort discussing sexuality with parents. There are now efforts emerging to boost pediatrician recommendations by shifting the focus from sex to cancer.

Cancer doctors leading campaign to boost use of HPV vaccine (Washington Post, June 19, 2016)

Another obstacle to vaccination is the original requirement for three doses spaced over six months. This required three trips to the pediatrician, and many kids were not completing the series. But that also provided populations of partially-vaccinated kids for research on whether fewer doses were sufficient. Based on that research, the CDC this week changed the recommendation to just two doses spaced six to twelve months apart if the vaccinations are given before age 15. This is expected to help increase vaccination rates.

CDC now recommends just two HPV vaccine doses for preteens (Washington Post, October 19, 2016)

Finally, Merck, the maker of Guardasil (the HPV vaccine) has just started running a commercial to guilt-trip parents into getting their kids vaccinated.

Do the new Merck HPV ads guilt-trip parents or tell hard truths? Both. (Washington Post, August 11, 2016)

If you are a parent of a child or adolescent, it is also my purpose here to guilt trip you. With a very simple action on your part, you can, with almost 100% certainty, prevent your child from ever developing cervical or HPV-related oral cancer.

My 12-year-old received her three-dose series earlier this year. My 10-year-old will get vaccinated next year.

What possible legitimate reason could you have for not providing your children with this protection?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Returning the Favor

I have a bit of news.

At the beginning of September I changed jobs, leaving behind 10 years working to enable genomics research in pharmaceutical & biotech drug discovery to join the new Informatics department at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Dana-Farber is ranked as the fourth best cancer center in the US by US News and World Report (for my Seattle friends, the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which includes the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is #7). I'm proud to have the opportunity to work at such a distinguished institution.

Those who followed my treatment story on this blog know that I was treated at Dana-Farber in 2013. You also know that I received excellent care and that I am very grateful to "the Fahbah" (as Bostonians call it). I joke that I'm returning to the scene of the crime, but really I'm there to return the favor: to do what I can to improve outcomes for future cancer patients.

I consider it quite an honor.

It's a very exciting time in cancer research. Normally progress in cancer treatment is slow and painfully incremental, with new treatments for difficult forms of the disease perhaps providing a few months of life beyond the previous best treatment. But in the past 15-20 years science has learned a great deal about the unbelievably complex human immune system; enough that in the past five years breakthroughs in "immuno-oncology" (using the immune system to fight cancer) have provided startling improvements in prognosis for some formerly deadly forms of the disease such as metastatic melanoma.

One of these breakthrough drugs put Jimmy Carter's cancer into complete remission.

So far these new treatments are only working in a few cancer types, and only in a fraction of patients with those forms. But the field is energized and hopeful that these gains can be expanded.

I was not looking for a new job - this one came and found me. The man who was my boss' boss for about seven years back in pharma was recruited to Dana-Farber to build a new department from a collection of existing groups plus new growth. This is a person I respect greatly for his intelligence, creativity and most of all his demonstrated leadership abilities. For him to reach out to me to come and join him was the biggest professional compliment I have ever received. So not only am I motivated to help patients; I'm also motivated to live up to that trust.

I'm finishing my seventh week tomorrow. At least once per week I have texted Wonderful Wife sometime in the middle of my busy day to tell her,

"I love my job. I made the right move."