The woman changing the face of cancer

8 March 2016 | Cancer Council NSW
Karen Canfell

Today is International Women’s Day and this day gives us a chance to stop and celebrate outstanding women making a difference in their field.

At Cancer Council NSW, there is one such woman who is quite literally changing the face of cancer.

Professor Karen Canfell is an internationally recognised researcher and expert in cervical cancer screening and prevention. She is the Director of the Cancer Research Division at Cancer Council NSW, where she leads an outstanding team of researchers who are committed to reducing the impact of cancer on the community.

Last year, Karen was named one of the top 100 women of influence in Australia by Westpac and the Australian Financial Review, in recognition of her ground breaking contributions to cancer research nationally and around the globe.

Research impact

Karen’s study at Cancer Council NSW provides policy-makers with an evidence base for decision making in cancer control. Her team uses a range of methods including epidemiological analysis, clinical evaluation, systematic review and health economic evaluation.

A key focus of Karen’s research has been the interplay between HPV vaccination and cervical screening in both high and low resource countries. The work of Karen and her team underpinned the recent major changes to the Australian National Cervical Screening Program. This includes the introduction of a new cervical screening test that detects the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the virus that causes cervical cancer.

Using a complex simulation model, the Karen’s work showed that moving from 2-yearly Pap smears to an HPV test every 5 years would further reduce cervical cancer rates in women by over 20%. This HPV-based screening will also decrease the number of tests a woman needs in her lifetime from 26 to 11. It is this ‘win-win’ situation for women, doctors, and government that has driven the announcement that the national screening program will switch to HPV-based cervical screening from May 2017. This will make Australia the first country in the world to have a truly integrated HPV prevention approach to cervical screening. 

New projects

Karen is co-Principal Investigator of a trial called ‘Compass’, which is the first ever large-scale trial of cervical screening in a population offered HPV vaccination, which is being conducted with the Victorian Cytology Service.

Karen also leads a number of competitive grants from National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and other agencies, and was recently awarded a program grant from the US National Institutes of Health. As part of this program, Karen is one of five lead investigators conducting comparative modelling of new options for HPV prevention in the United States. Karen has also received a Research Excellence Award from the NHMRC for the highest-ranked Career Development Fellowship in Population Health.

With women like Karen and others in her team making such significant inroads in cancer research, we encourage more young women to make science a career.

Together we can beat cancer.