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Cancer Research UK

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Research conducted over the past three decades into human papillomavirus (HPV) has helped develop a vaccine to protect millions of women against cervical cancer.

Following the implementation of the HPV vaccine in 2008, cervical cancer cases have dramatically reduced in young women who were offered the vaccine.  

Cancer Research UK have been behind the research and say they have the potential to reduce cases to the point where almost no one develops it — a pivotal moment in time. 

There are around 13 ‘high-risk’ types of HPV that can cause cancer. People infected over a long period with ‘high- risk’ HPV types are more likely to go on to develop cancer.  

In the 1990s, Cancer Research UK scientists proved the link between HPV and cervical cancer. This important discovery ultimately led to the development of cervical screening and vaccines.  

The vaccine was shown to dramatically reduce cervical cancer rates by almost 90% in women in their 20s who were offered it at ages 12 to 13.

HPV screening in the UK 

In 1988, the UK Government decided to make the cervical screening test a national screening programme, something that Cancer Research UK scientists played a big role in. This cytology test involves looking at cervical cells in the sample and aims to detect any unusual changes. But, sometimes, abnormal cells can go back to normal on their own accord and don’t need treatment.  

Scientists discovered that they could test some abnormal cervical samples for HPV, and this was more accurate at discovering people at a higher risk of cervical cancer than traditional cytology testing. In 2019, a study supported by the charity revealed that a switch to testing for HPV, known as primary HPV testing, would be more effective at picking up cell changes that could lead to cancer. This led to the switch being rolled out in Wales, England and Scotland. Northern Ireland has not moved to primary HPV testing yet, but the charity hopes that they will soon.    

Since then, research including a study carried out by Cancer Research UK-funded researchers at King’s College London has shown that the time interval between cervical screens can be safely extended from three to five years for those who test negative for HPV. The UK National Screening Committee recommended the new intervals which have been implemented by Scotland and Wales. England has not yet announced any changes to intervals.  

HPV vaccine and advances in cervical cancer research 

In 2008, the UK implemented an HPV vaccine programme for teenage girls. The vaccine protects against the main cancer-causing strains of the virus. Protecting people against the infection helps to prevent abnormal changes in cervical cells, in turn leading to fewer cases of cervical cancer. Today, all children aged 12–13 are offered the vaccine.  

In 2021, the first study of its kind, supported by the charity, found that the UK HPV vaccine programme works and will save lives. The vaccine was shown to dramatically reduce cervical cancer rates by almost 90% in women in their 20s who were offered it at ages 12 to 13. The study indicates the potential for HPV vaccination, in combination with cervical screening, to reduce cervical cancer to the point where almost no one develops it.  

There is ongoing research into self-sampling for cervical screening. Scientists hope that the self-sampling option, in the future, will improve uptake of cervical screening by reducing barriers to attending screening appointments and prevent more cases of cervical cancer. 

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