Finding a cure for HPV-related cancers

Posted at 11:29 PM, Nov 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-20 14:21:36-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Fernanda Whitworth watched her husband Ralph battle cancer for years.

"He couldn't swallow, he couldn't talk or basically eat. So he lost 45 pounds, it's literally barbaric."

Ralph Whitworth was diagnosed with HPV-related tongue cancer in 2013. It eventually claimed his life in 2016.

Before Ralph died, the Whitworths began a quest to find a cure. It's a mission Fernanda has carried on.

"I feel like we are so close; we're on the tipping point of finding a cure," she explained. 

The nonprofit they founded in San Diego, The Immunotherapy Foundation, is dedicated to funding the most promising research on HPV-driven cancers.

"This is a huge problem. Not only does HPV account for six different cancer types, almost 100 percent of cervical cancers and in men, now those instances are rising for head and neck cancer, " said Dr. Ezra Cohen, who is the Associate Director for Translational Science at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. 

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that about 14 million people get a new HPV infection every year in the U.S. Nearly all men and women who have ever had sex get at least one type of genital HPV at some time in their lives. 

The Immunotherapy Foundation has focused its efforts on three categories: 

  • Adoptive cell therapies, which are treatments used to help the immune system fight diseases
  • Personalized vaccines, intended to delay or stop cancer cell growth; to cause tumor shrinkage; to prevent cancer from coming back
  • Newly developed drugs

"We're harnessing the power of an individual's immune system against their cancer," said Cohen. 

In addition to treatment, the foundation also stresses the importance of prevention. 

"It is a completely preventable cancer just like any other HPV-related cancer, be it in the cervix, anal cancer or penile cancer," Cohen explained. 

Cohen says the HPV vaccine can prevent about 90 percent of reproductive cancers and 80 percent of oral cancers. Currently, only about 50 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys receive the vaccine. The guidelines for who should receive the vaccine have changed. It's now recommended for anyone up to age 45. 

Between increased awareness and more effective treatment options, the hope is that HPV-related cancers will become a thing of the past. 

"I am confident that we will fulfill that vision," Cohen said.