That was the philosophy instilled in Dr. Anna Giuliano early in her life. Growing up in Manhattan, she was exposed to plenty of cultural and social groups, many of whom had little or no access to medical care. It’s those people for whom she holds a soft spot in her heart.
“I was raised with a strong sense of service to the community,” she said. “And in college I was surrounded by the same way of thinking. I became very committed in the areas I knew could make a difference in people’s lives.”
Though she first started out in nutrition research, it was while working on a project that intersected nutrition and cervical cancer that she began to hit her stride. Though at that time there was suspicion within the research community that human papillomavirus (HPV) was the primary cause of cervical cancer, it wasn’t until nearly 10 years later, in the mid-90s, that the science was there to back up the claim.
Dr. Giuliano really came alive when it became known cervical cancer was overwhelmingly caused by a viral infection. As a graduate student who’d also studied epidemiology, this is where she knew she could make a difference. She had found her calling in medicine.
“After reading all the literature I could get my hands on at that point, I knew then that I only wanted to work on cancer,” she said. “Cervical cancer affected a lot of women, and especially underserved women. It was the most important cancer for women internationally, and to work on it satisfied all the needs I had to do something that would make a great impact.”
Over the next few years, she was at the University of Arizona and worked closely with several other researchers who recognized the potential for dramatically reducing the instance of cervical cancer through a specialized vaccine. But to stand a chance of getting anywhere, they needed funding.
It just so happened the director of the cancer prevention program at Arizona, Dr. Dave Alberts, was already very familiar with the Prevent Cancer Foundation.
“He said, ‘You know, you should submit this project.’ And so we did. The very first funding we received was from the Foundation.” And with that, the team was off and running.
Their project was so promising, the Foundation awarded it a second grant to continue the work. But there were still times when Dr. Giuliano and her colleagues were afraid they were never going to find what they were looking for.
“It was trial by fire,” she said. “You had to count on the fact that you were trained well as a scientist, and then apply what you knew. We were really breaking new ground.”
What eventually came out of that research was the groundwork for the production of the HPV vaccine that’s on the market now, effectively offering protection for millions of women worldwide.
“I can say, ‘I did it.’ It’s amazing; as a postdoctoral researcher I had an idea, and it was a really ambitious idea. To be able to fulfill that dream is incredible,” she said.
Dr. Giuliano is hopeful this progress will encourage other researchers to look at infections and preventive vaccines in a new light. Now a professor and the director of cancer prevention at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, Florida, she looks back and realizes she and her team were very fortunate.
“To be able to carry out this massive amount of work that’s had this tremendous impact with a relatively small pot of money is exciting,” she said. “It was exciting for us, and it’s exciting for others to get this kind of support.”