What you need to know about new research into treating cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer found anywhere near the cervix (Alamy/PA)
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer found anywhere near the cervix (Alamy/PA)

Using existing drugs to treat cervical cancer before standard treatment could lead to a 35% reduction in the risk of relapse or death, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the UCL Cancer Institute and UCLH looked into whether a short course of induction chemotherapy (IC), where a drug is used to destroy as many cancer cells as possible, before chemoradiation (CRT), could help with this.

Here’s everything you need to know about the findings…

What is cervical cancer?

According to the NHS website, cervical cancer is a type of cancer found anywhere near the cervix – the opening between the vagina and the womb (uterus), which is also known as the neck of the womb.

Most cervical cancers grow very slowly and are caused by an infection from specific types of human papillomavirus (HPV) and mostly affect women under the age of 45.

According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, symptoms include vaginal bleeding that is unusual to you, changes to vaginal discharge, discomfort during sex and pain in your lower back or pelvis.

Changes to cells can be spotted by a cervical screening, and then treated before they turn into cancer.

There are around 3,200 new cases every year in the UK, with the five-year survival rate being around 70%, according to Cancer Research UK.

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CRT has been the standard treatment for cervical cancer patients since 1999, but even though there have been overall significant developments in radiation therapy techniques, up to 30% of people experience their cancer coming back.

What did the research involve?

Over a 10-year period, 500 patients who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer – that was large enough to see without a microscope but hadn’t spread to other parts of the body – took part in the Interlace trial at hospitals in the UK, Mexico, India, Italy and Brazil.

Researchers looked into whether a short course of IC before CRT could reduce rates of relapse and death.

What results were found?

After five years, researchers discovered that 80% of the people who received a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy were alive, whilst 73% had not seen their cancer return or spread.

A major benefit, according to researchers, is that it can be incorporated into standard of care treatment relatively quickly, because cheap, accessible and already-approved ingredients such as carboplatin and paclitaxel are needed for IC.

“Our trial shows that this short course of additional chemotherapy delivered immediately before the standard CRT can reduce the risk of the cancer returning or death by 35%,” said Dr Mary McCormack, lead investigator of the trial from UCL Cancer Institute and UCLH.

“This is the biggest improvement in outcome in this disease in over 20 years.

“I’m incredibly proud of all the patients who participated in the trial; their contribution has allowed us to gather the evidence needed to improve treatment of cervical cancer patients everywhere.

“We couldn’t have done this without the generous support of Cancer Research UK.”

Why is the research important?

Dr Iain Foulkes, executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK, said: “Timing is everything when you’re treating cancer. The simple act of adding induction chemotherapy to the start of chemoradiation treatment for cervical cancer has delivered remarkable results in this trial.

“A growing body of evidence is showing the value of additional rounds of chemotherapy before other treatments like surgery and radiotherapy in several other cancers.

“Not only can it reduce the chances of cancer coming back, it can be delivered quickly using drugs already available worldwide.

“We’re excited for the improvements this trial could bring to cervical cancer treatment and hope short courses of induction chemotherapy will be rapidly adopted in the clinic.”