Stephenson Cancer Center gets 2.2 million grant to fund cervical cancer prevention

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Mary Strauss frequently travels from Texas to Oklahoma to see Dr. Joan Walker and other specialists at the Stephenson Cancer Center.

With the help of a team of doctors, she continues a brave fight against Cervical Cancer.

It's been decades since she was first diagnosed with the disease.

At that time, she was a young mom experiencing unusual symptoms.

Strauss said she suffered from fatigue, severe cramps and back-to-back periods.

"I jokingly said 'I probably have cancer or something.' And, that's exactly what we heard, that I had cervical cancer and that we wouldn't have any more children," Strauss said.

Cervical cancer is caused by a virus called the Human Papillomavirus or HPV.

Many people, including thousands of women, are already infected with the virus.

"There are two million women every year who present to a physician with an HPV problem," Walker said. " So, two million is a lot of people, costs a lot of money in our healthcare dollars."

Dr. Doris Benbrook and her team at the Stephenson Cancer Center hope to change that.

They know, when cells are infected by HPV, those cells start to look abnormal.

However, not all of these abnormal cells become cancer.

That is why the current treatment for abnormal cervical cells is to remove them through surgery.

But, researchers have developed a promising compound called OK-1 that may be able to keep HPV-infected cells from ever turning cancerous.

"What our drug does is it counteracts all of those things that the human papillomavirus does in the cell that can lead to cancer," Benbrook said.

Here's how it works.

OK-1 binds to a molecule called Martalin that changes in the early stages of Cervical Cancer.

The drug triggers a process by which the cell kills itself, stopping the cancer before it starts without harming healthy cells.

With a new 2.2 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health, Benbrook and her team are beginning the first human trials of the drug.

"So, the first thing that we have to do is know if our formulations reach the cervix," Benbrook said. "So, we're going to look at an oral formulation that's a pill, but we're also developing a suppository formulation that can be directly applied to the cervix".

If successful, it may mean women with abnormal cervical cells might avoid surgery and simply take the drug instead.

It's a choice Strauss wished she had years ago.

"The thought that I could have possibly been a candidate for that, oh my. How different, you know, how different life could have been," Strauss said.