Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nubia Munoz wins Canada Gairdner Global Health Award

The Gairdner Foundation is a Canadian organization that recognizes achievement in the biomedical sciences. Their 2009 awards were announced today. The Gairdner Foundation International Award, "traditionally considered a precursor to winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine", is going to three men: Shinya Yamanaka, Richard Losick, and Kazutoshi Mori. However this year's Global Health Award is going to a woman: Dr. Nubia Muñoz, Emeritus Professor of the National Cancer Institute of Columbia.

The Global Health Award "recognizes those who have made major scientific advances in any one of four areas' namely; basic science, clinical science or population or environmental health. These advances must have, or have potential to make a significant impact on health outcomes in the developing world." And Muñoz's work showing the role of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) in the etiology of cervical cancer fits those requirements nicely.

Muñoz also won the 2008 Sir Richard Doll Prize in Epidemiology. The award site gives a nice explanation of the significance of her research :

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. Her subsequent work also produced precise estimates of relative risks that permitted defining the HPV genotypes that had to be targeted for prevention. 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.
[I've removed the footnote citations, click the link above to see the references.]
Her work helped persuade pharmaceutical companies that developing a vaccine for HPV was a worthwhile project.

And the role of HPV in cervical cancer has international importance: cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women in large parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia, and the third most frequent cancer in women worldwide. In spite of its prevalence, until the recent announcement of a vaccine against the strains of HPV that cause most cervical cancers, it got little media attention. Hopefully the vaccine will be made available - and affordable - to women in the countries where most of the 250,000 or so annual deaths from cervical cancer occur.The epidemiological studies lead by Muñoz are ultimately the reason why there is that hope of that at all.

Most of the information about Muñoz is in Spanish, so I haven't found anything about her background that I could actually understand. She received her decgree as a Doctor of Medicine and Surgery from the Faculy of Medicine at the University of Valle in Cali, Columbia in 1964. She was a fellow at the National Cancer Institute at NIH for two years in the late 1960s and did post graduate work in the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. She has been studying the epidemiology of cervical cancer for more than 30 years. I think her work pretty well speaks for itself.

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