Dr. Nubia Muñoz: a pretty cool lady scientist, wins prestigious science award
Yay for women in science! Not only was a woman (Dr. Nubia Muñoz) awarded the Global Health Award for 2009, but the work that she was awarded for is just as important: connecting HPV with cervical cancer.
For those who don’t know too much about the human papillomavirus (HPV): this is a virus that “infects the skin and mucous membranes” (from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and impacts the health of women more than the health of men. There are about 40 types of HPV. HPV is estimated to be one of the most commonly sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. One study found that in the year of 2003-2004, about 26.8% of women aged 14-59 were infected with at least one type of HPV.
The HPV vaccine was invented about two decades ago and was approved in many countries, including the U.S., Australia, and countries in the European Union, in summer of 2007. History of the vaccine can be read here.
About two weeks ago, the Gairdner Foundation in Canada gave its 2009 Global Health Award to Dr. Nubia Muñoz. Muñoz is a scientist and Emeritus Professor of the National Cancer Institute of Colombia. She is known for her work in studying, treating, and developing vaccines for HPV and cervical cancers. Muñoz is one of few women to win this award (list of awardees are here). Recipients of a Gairdner Foundation award is usually a precursor to winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Muñoz previously won the Richard Doll Prize in Epidemiology in 2008 for proving the HPV causes cervical cancer while at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyons, France. For those scientifically-inclined, her study had two goals, as posted on the Richard Doll Prize in Epidemiology site:
First, she conducted an international series of case-control studies using modern laboratory techniques that ended up demonstrating that HPV infection by certain genotypes of HPV is unequivocally one the strongest cancer risk factors ever found [7,8]. Her subsequent work also produced precise estimates of relative risks that permitted defining the HPV genotypes that had to be targeted for prevention [8,9]. Likewise, it was from this enormous and persuasive series of case-control studies and from collaborative work that she had led as part of the International Biological Study of Cervical Cancer (IBSCC) that came the realization that HPV infection was not only the unequivocal central cause of cervical cancer but it should also be viewed as a necessary one . No other cancer prevention paradigms (e.g., smoking-lung cancer, HBV-liver cancer) have this distinction .
Secondly, she convinced the IARC to convene a group of experts to reach a consensus concerning the classification of HPVs as carcinogens for its authoritative Monograph series on carcinogenicity evaluation. In 1995, experts led by Muñoz classified HPVs 16 and 18 as two genotypes receiving the label “Group 1, Human Carcinogens” . This monograph had an enormous impact in subsequent prevention research and policy. The biotechnology industry began to develop HPV tests with the aim of improving traditional cervical cancer screening with Pap cytology to make it more efficient and more in line with the new knowledge. This led to today’s improved secondary prevention approaches in cervical cancer control via screening and management with HPV tests. Likewise, and more importantly, the 1995 IARC Monograph  gave pharmaceutical companies the body of evidence they needed to take the financial risks in developing and field-testing candidate HPV vaccines. The end result is that about 10 years later we have two new exciting fronts for cervical cancer prevention: HPV vaccination and improved screening with HPV tests, all originated from Muñoz’ vigorous and relentless leadership on the epidemiology front grounded on the pioneer work by Zur Hausen. It should be mentioned also that Muñoz, after retiring from the IARC, continued to influence the field by advising the vaccine companies to conduct relevant vaccination trials that could be generalizable worldwide.
*Note: references and footnotes can be found here.
There isn’t too much info on the web on Dr. Muñoz (most of it is in Spanish), but we know that this is an awesome contribution to science in regards to the health of women. In addition, Muñoz stands among the sharp women who excel in the science field. Take that, Larry Summers!