Eighteen-year old Erin Siegel had big dreams, a razor sharp mind and limited resources. When a presidential scholarship made college a reality, the Phoenix native set her sights on medical school, until her aptitude for math moved her off course and toward a fortuitous detour. Now an epidemiologist, Dr. Siegel is investigating a new cervical cancer early detection tool, blending the best of medicine with public health to affect the health and well being of millions of women.
Siegel is a CRPF-funded researcher at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa where she is taking up the charge of her mentor Dr. Anna Giuliano, one of the country’s foremost cervical cancer researchers whose own career in cancer prevention began more than a decade ago with a single CRPF grant. This initial grant helped Dr. Giuliano develop the methodology and infrastructure to conduct clinical trials of a recently approved vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cervical cancer.
“It was Dr. Giuliano who encouraged me to work with her in Arizona, where she was leading a study related to the high risk of human papillomavirus and cervical cancer among Hispanic women. And it was my good fortune that she asked me to move with her to Moffitt. Now I’m heading up my own study,” Siegel says.
Despite the vaccine’s approval, millions of women worldwide have already been exposed to the virus and are at risk, Siegel explains. “While the Pap test can detect abnormal cells in the cervix, it has limitations. Testing for HPV infections isn’t a definitive indicator of cervical cancer risk, either. In many women, the infection simply resolves itself, posing no threat,” she adds, “and not all women exposed to high risk strains of the virus get cervical cancer. We need to identify another marker in the blood to help us narrow the universe of women exposed to HPV and more accurately predict which women are at higher risk for cervical cancer.”
Siegel is investigating a single antibody called anti- HmdU aAbs, which is the result of damage to cell DNA caused by unstable oxygen particles. To do this she is measuring the antibody in samples of blood collected from 284 women who participated in Giuliano’s Young Women’s Health Study, which looked at HPV infections in hundreds of women over the course of several years.
“The completed study information and archived blood samples are tremendous resources for me,” Siegel says. “I’m testing the samples of women with and without HPV, looking for a relationship between levels of the antibody and the infection. I want to determine if there is a difference in levels of the antibody in women with HPV as compared to non-infected women and to see whether the antibody level changes over time in women with an infection that persisted.”
In the end, Siegel hopes to have enough data to support a clinical trial to be conducted in thousands of women. “When used in combination with tests already available, screening the blood for this antibody may become an important predictor for cervical cancer risk or even an early detection tool,” Siegel says. “And because this novel antibody is the result of DNA damage anywhere in the body, it may prove a key marker for the detection of other cancers, as well.”