How the International Innovation Grant Is Improving Cancer Care for Women in Myanmar

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W. Charles Penley, MD, FASCO

Dr. Thida and her colleagues are using the resources they have in the most imaginative and efficient way. The Conquer Cancer Foundation is proud to support the work of this dedicated team.

—W. Charles Penley, MD, FASCO

In 2014, the Conquer Cancer Foundation awarded four inaugural International Innovation Grants to aid novel research projects in Colombia, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Tanzania. The program, which supports a 1-year research grant of up to $20,000 to a nonprofit organization or governmental agency in a low- and middle-income country, is designed to fund projects to improve cancer care in local communities, as well as have the potential to be transferable to settings in other developing countries. Each grant is associated with a principal investigator who is an ASCO member, is affiliated with the grantee organization, and is a resident of a low- or middle-income country.

Recently, W. Charles Penley, MD, FASCO, Chair of the Conquer Cancer Foundation Board of Directors and a medical oncologist in Nashville, paid a visit to the University of Medicine 1 in Yangon, Myanmar, to see firsthand how the grant is being utilized. The project, “Effectiveness of a visual inspection with acetic acid and cryotherapy-based single-visit approach to cervical cancer prevention in Taikkyi Township,” is led by principal investigator Mya Thida, MBBS, PhD, Professor and Head of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at the University of Medicine 1. The program uses an economical “screen-and-treat” method for the prevention of cervical cancer, a disease that kills 300,000 women—mostly young women—in low- and middle-income countries each year.

“Because physicians don’t have access to pathology resources, widespread Pap smear screening is not done. Dr. Thida’s program follows the approach of screening through visual inspection of the cervix with acetic acid,” explained Dr. Penley. “If a potential problem is identified, Dr. Thida and her colleagues take it a step further. With the permission of the patient, they use cryotherapy to freeze the area, eliminating the suspicious tissue. The patient is then offered a repeat examination in 6 months.”

Taking Screening to Women Where They Live

In addition to having a screening facility at Central Women’s Hospital in Yangon, where she also conducts public education in cervical cancer prevention, Dr. Thida takes medical equipment, including disposable speculums and portable cryotherapy units; brochures in cervical cancer prevention; and a staff of physicians, nurses, and midwives who have been trained in cervical cancer screening, to communities throughout Myanmar.

Although it is too early to measure the full impact Dr. Thida’s International Innovation Grant has had on preventing cervical cancer in women in Taikkyi Township, Dr. Penley said in just a few months screening rates have increased from a baseline of 0.9% prior to Dr. Thida’s program to nearly 20% today. The hope is that with repeat visits by the team, the rate will increase further. The program is reproducible not just in other cities in Myanmar, but in other developing countries as well.

“What I witnessed is such quality work being done,” said Dr. Penley. “Dr. Thida and her colleagues are using the resources they have in the most imaginative and efficient way. I was very impressed. The Conquer Cancer Foundation is proud to support the work of this dedicated team.”

The screen-and-treat program is already so successful, said Dr. Penley, he has encouraged Dr. Thida and her medical research fellows and students to apply for other Conquer Cancer Foundation funding opportunities, including the International Development and Education Award and the Young Investigator Award. ■

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