IUSM Center for HPV Research builds on vital work of Dr. Darron Brown

November 19, 2015

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and the vaccination against it have dominated local news recently, as Indiana tries to raise awareness about this common virus and options available to prevent it. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, affecting millions of people each year—nearly always with no symptoms.

The Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccine is recommended for people up to 26 years, though guidelines vary slightly for men and women. | Photo By IU Department of Pediatrics

IU School of Medicine researchers played an important role in the development of the HPV vaccine, which helps prevent complicated health problems such as genital warts and cancer, and the school continues work to understand and prevent infection throughout the world, particularly through its Center for HPV Research and Center for Global Health.

At the center of the groundbreaking work to understand HPV and prevent infection is Darron Brown, M.D., Professor of Medicine, Infectious Diseases, and Professor of Microbiology & Immunology at IUSM. Dr. Brown was deeply involved in developing the technology underlying the HPV vaccine, and he participated in the research process for Gardasil®, the HPV vaccine produced by Merck & Co. Dr. Brown is currently traveling between Kenya and Morocco, working on a global HPV project and presenting work on HPV cancer at the African Oncology Conference.

As an extension of Dr. Brown’s breakthrough research, the Center for HPV Research, an entity of the IUSM Department of Pediatrics, focuses on exploring HPV transmission and infection and the consequences and prevention of infection. Dr. Gregory Zimet, Professor of Pediatrics and Clinical Psychology at IU School of Medicine, and J. Dennis Fortenberry, M.D., M.S., Professor of Pediatrics at IUSM (both in the Section of Adolescent Medicine), co-direct the Center for HPV Research with support of the IUPUI Signature Center Initiative, the IU Simon Cancer Center, and the IUSM Department of Pediatrics. The Center encourages researchers throughout Indiana to exchange ideas and explore opportunities for collaboration.

Among collaborators are IU School of Medicine students, residents and fellows. At the Center for HPV Research, these trainees are given the opportunity to dive into HPV research alongside experienced professionals.

“We have Masters students, Ph.D. students, and post-docs working with us on our research,” said Dr. Zimet. Trainees get pulled into the center and attend meetings; some receive formal financial support for postdoctoral work, and some get academic support with research and collaboration networking. Some have even presented their work at national and international scientific meetings.

Monica Kasting, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Epidemiology at the IU Fairbanks School of Public Health, believes that the center’s research and development work for HPV is extremely valuable.

“I was at a conference last year, and when I told another researcher where I was studying, he pointed out that a lot of great HPV research is coming out of Indiana,” said Kasting. “This has helped advance the state of the science and also solidified Indiana University's reputation as a leading and innovative research institution.”

Tracy Cummings is part of the research staff at IU School of Medicine and a graduate student at the Fairbanks School of Public Health; she’s working at the Center for HPV Research. She’s been working with Drs. Zimet and Fortenberry since 2007, focusing on STI studies and HPV, and said she’s realized that a lot of women don’t really understand the tests they undergo and why they’re important.

“[A pap test] is something that women do without really knowing why,” Cummings said. She wonders how we can do a better job at explaining how HPV relates to that routine test. “That’s something that never really got translated to me as a young woman, and I think that can change moving forward.”

Community outreach is a big part of the Center for HPV Research’s work to educate and inform the public about HPV research, medical developments and the importance of HPV awareness.

“I work with a group called Cervical Cancer-Free Indiana,” said Dr. Zimet. “Our goal is to raise awareness about cervical cancer prevention and HPV vaccination.” This program is working to prevent women from going through the experience of difficult surgeries and months of cancer treatments—and ultimately to save lives.

The HPV vaccine is recommended for people up to age 26 years, although recommendations vary slightly for women and men. If you are interested in becoming vaccinated for HPV, Student Health Services offers the vaccine at a discounted rate. For more information on HPV research and prevention, visit the IUSM Center for HPV Research and the American Sexual Health Association.