Western Mail Profiles: Dr Ned Powell, Cardiff University

Dr Ned Powell‘Vaccination programme aims to eradicate virus with link to cancer for a generation of Welsh women’

Dr Ned Powell is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Medicine.

Cervical cancer, the third most common cancer in women, is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) – an extremely common sexually- transmitted virus that most of us will get at some point in our life.In most cases HPV infection is completely harmless and the body gets rid of it in less than a year without any lasting effects.But in a small number of people, the infection persists and may lead to cancer, sometimes many years later.The work I do has three parts – we investigate how common HPV infection is in the population (around a third of Welsh women in their twenties have a current HPV infection); we explore the basic biology of HPV infection; and we try to improve treatment of the diseases caused by HPV.There are several reasons I love my job. Firstly, cancer touches nearly all our lives, and it’s a privilege to do research that contributes to fighting this disease.Secondly, I trained initially as a microbiologist and then as a cancer biologist, and HPV unites these interests.Lastly, this is a really exciting time to be working with HPV. The cervical cancer-HPV story represents a huge success for science in the war against cancer.It is less than 20 years since the link between HPV and cervical cancer was conclusively made, but as anyone with teenage daughters will know, we are now embarking on a vaccination programme that has the potential to virtually eradicate this disease for the next generation of Welsh women.

For the time being, however, it is vital women protect themselves against cervical cancer by attending routine screening, including women who have received the HPV vaccine.

Wales, and the School of Medicine in Cardiff in particular, is a great place to work as close collaboration between medical doctors, basic scientists and organisations like Cervical Screening Wales means the best science informs patient care as quickly as possible.

But none of our work would be possible without the women who take part in, and donate samples to our research studies.

I want to extend a huge thank you to them and also to the people who fund our work, including Cancer Research Wales, Cancer Research UK, the Emma Jane Demery Bequest and the Welsh Government.

The other current hot topic in the cervical cancer-HPV field is which vaccine to use to prevent HPV infection?

There are currently two vaccines available – one targets only the HPV types that cause cancer (Cervarix) and the other (Gardasil) prevents genital warts as well as cancer.

For the last three years the UK has used Cervarix, but the tender to supply vaccine for the UK is currently up for renewal.

Genital warts may be trivial compared to cancer, but they cause considerable distress to the 173,000 patients they affect each year in the UK, and treating these patients costs the NHS in the region of £52m a year.

It would be great if the UK Government – or even our own Welsh Government – would take a broader view of the problem of HPV-associated disease and use the better, rather than the cheaper, vaccine.

To contact Ned please email PowellNG@cf.ac.uk.

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 8th August 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.