Test for cervical cancer-causing virus to be introduced in India

Sarfrez Pharma will offer it to physicians across the country.

By The American Bazaar Staff

VIENNA, VA: An international life sciences company is bringing a groundbreaking screening test to India that will give women life-saving information about whether they have a treatable virus that causes almost all cases of cervical cancer.

Sarfez Pharmaceuticals and its affiliate Sarfez India will soon offer this state-of-the-art test to physicians across the country to give them a new, minimally invasive swab test that can detect the human papillomavirus, or HPV, before it causes cancer. Sarfez delivers its screening test to healthcare providers under the brand name HerShe.

In 2010, cervical cancer caused some 275,000 deaths of women worldwide, with cases concentrated in middle- and low-income nations, according to the World Health Organization. Nowhere is the disease more lethal than India, which had more than double the number of deaths from the disease than any other country. Sarfez is hoping to change those statistics—and change lives.

“Cervical cancer typically strikes when women are in their 40s and 50s, when these patients are mothers, caring for children who still have years of growing up to do. It’s not the death of a single person, but a dream shattered for an entire family,” said Salim Shah, Sarfez’s founder who received his Ph.D. from Jawaharlal Nehru University. “This is the real issue: How can you save those lives? This is an incredibly treatable cancer, if it’s diagnosed in time.”

Researchers have found that nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by high-risk strains of HPV. The virus is often transmitted to women through sexual contact in their teens and early 20s. Yet the changes to the cervix that eventually lead to cancer can take a decade or more to develop and even longer to be detected without proper screening.

Elsewhere in the world, women are accustomed to regular check-ups with their gynecologist to look for early signs of cancerous changes. Because of a cultural predisposition against preventative medicine in India, women here do not undergo annual screening to detect whether they have HPV or Pap smears to look for pre-cancerous cervical cells. Instead, they often wait until they are experiencing symptoms, and this otherwise treatable cancer has spread.

Consider the statistics: the incidence of HPV infection in India is 7.9 percent—compared to 11.2 percent worldwide, 12.4 percent in China and 12.5 percent in the United States.  Yet the number of deaths in India surpasses China—the second-ranked nation in the world for cervical cancer deaths—by a striking 114 percent.

Dr. Mohsin Pashah, the chief medical officer of Mediscope Hospital in Bangalore, noted that the high rate of cervical cancer-related deaths does not correlate with the low rate of HPV infections in India. This discrepancy, Pashah said, may be happening because cancer is not detected early enough or because Indian strains of the virus are more virulent.

Either way, Sarfez’s testing service will address both issues by checking women for the virus earlier and getting them medical care sooner.

Unlike organs of the inner abdomen that are difficult to monitor, the cervix is a relatively simple organ for physicians to assess. The Sarfez screening test requires patients to go to the doctor for a cervical swab—a gentle test that’s less invasive than a Pap smear. The sample is then sent to a highly regulated lab in the United States, where it is tested for different HPV strains, including the two that are most likely to become cervical cancer in Indian women (strains 16 and 18). Doctors—or their patients—can then get the results from a secure website within ten days.

From a health policy perspective, the screening system will save the Indian government millions of rupees each year. While it costs about 2,000 rupees to treat a known case of HPV, it can cost as much as 500,000 rupees to treat a woman with an active case of cervical cancer—and potentially cost her life.

Sarfez’s leadership understands that, for the screening test to become routine in India, women need to rethink their approach to health care. They need to view their physician as someone available for preventive medicine, not just someone they see when they are sick.

Sarfez India has assembled a team of six physicians—all women—who are working on bringing this screening system to doctors and hospitals because they believe in its social goals, as well as its clinical importance.

“We have a philosophy in India that an apple a day will keep the doctor away, but an apple is only going to get you so far,” said Dr. Rana Samad, Sarfez India’s scientific director. “By undergoing this rather simple screening, women can make sure that they aren’t at risk for developing a lethal cancer. And that will truly keep the doctor away.”

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