Statistics show that cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women worldwide. An estimated 570 000 cases were reported in 2018, which represents about 7.5% of all female cancer deaths globally.
Furthermore, cervical cancer claims more than 311 000 lives every year, and 85% of these cases occur in low- to middle-income countries.
World Health Organisation observed that most HPV infections clear on their own but there is a risk that the infection may become persistent and lead to lesions within infected areas. It said these pre-cancerous lesions may progress and develop into invasive cervical cancer.
And this is what piqued Melissa Marx’s interest into finding more about HPV, which is affecting millions of women in the world. Marx is a medical biochemistry student in University of Cape Town (UCT)’s department of integrative biomedical sciences based in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS).
She hopes that her research findings will set a strong basis for scientists as they work towards discovering therapeutics to reduce the high burden of HPV infection in the country, on the continent and around globe.
What is HVP?
HPV stands for human papillomavirus; it is described as a common viral infection of the reproductive tract and is spread through skin-to-skin contact. There are more than 100 different HPV types, which infect the genitals, mouth and throat.
Her research into HPV is one of the department’s major programmes and it is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (GCRF START).
Marx is an important addition to the growing number of women at UCT and across the country who are making significant headway in the STEM field. GCRF START hailed Marx’s research into HPV saying it is vital as it tackles a global challenge using world-class science. In addition, they said this aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Marx is grateful to the GCRF START saying if it wasn’t for the grant, much of her research would not have materialised. “This grant enabled me to apply cutting-edge structural biology techniques to gain insights into the structure of HPV,” she said.
Added Marx: “I was also incredibly fortunate to have collected data at the Electron Bio-Imaging Centre at Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom. This was only possible with funding from the GCRF START grant.”
Marx’s research focused on visualising the effect of an enzyme found within the reproductive tract on the structure of the virus, as it occurs during the infection process. To achieve this, she and fellow researchers studied HPV pseudo-viruses (non-infectious and synthetic viruses) using laboratory-based techniques, structural biology and computational work.
The team closely studied the changes in the HPV structure as they occurred during infection, using high-resolution cryo-electron microscopy and three-dimensional reconstructions of the virus.
During this process, the researchers completed the first high-resolution structural model of HPV, which occurred during the infection process, in an intermediate form.
This detailed information on the structure of the virus allows greater insight into the HPV infection process and adds to scientific knowledge on the events that occur during infection. Scientists hope to use the information and other related research to develop preventative and therapeutic options for HPV infection.
With the HPV becoming the cause of most cervical cancer cases worldwide, it was felt and an urgent intervention is necessary to reduce the high burden of disease. Currently, there are no effective treatments for HPV infection, but prophylactic vaccines are available globally to prevent infection in unexposed individuals.
According to Marx, while these vaccines are safe and effective, they are ineffective against existing infections and may not prevent infection by all HPV types. She said from now on, she and her fellow researchers will continue to study the early-entry mechanisms of HPV during infection, using cryo-electron microscopy.
This process will depict a detailed picture of the virus and how it operates. She said that scientists have a single aim: to use this and other data available to help develop new treatment options to prevent the spread of HPV.
Marx said that UCT’s Electron Microscope Unit played an integral part in her research process. Researchers used the electron microscopes and cryo-EM preparation resources to assess the HPV samples.
In the end, due to the exceptional resources, only the best samples were sent to the Electron Bio-Imaging Centre for scrutiny. While the research continues, Marx’s additional findings will be published in a peer-reviewed journal in due course.