Vaginal cancer research | Cancer Research UK
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Vaginal cancer research

All treatments must be fully researched before they can be adopted as standard treatment for everyone. This is so that we can be sure they work better than the treatments we already use. And so we know that they are safe. 

First of all, treatments are developed and tested in laboratories. Only after we know that they are likely to be safe are they tested in people, in clinical trials. Cancer Research UK supports a lot of UK laboratory research into cancer and also supports many UK and international clinical trials.

Researchers are looking into


CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating vaginal cancer section.



Why we need research

All treatments have to be fully researched before they can be adopted as standard treatment for everyone. This is so that

  • We can be sure they work
  • We can be sure they work better than the treatments that are available at the moment
  • They are known to be safe

First, treatments are developed and tested in laboratories. For ethical and safety reasons, experimental treatments must be tested in the laboratory before they can be tried in patients. If a treatment described here is said to be at the laboratory stage of research, it is not ready for patients and is not available either within or outside the NHS. Cancer Research UK supports a lot of UK laboratory research into cancer.

Tests in patients are called clinical trials. Cancer Research UK supports many UK and international clinical trials.

In our trials and research section you can find out about clinical trials, including the 4 phases of trials. You can also search our database of UK cancer trials. The database also has information about closed trials and trial results.

All the new approaches covered here are the subject of ongoing research. This research has to be completed, and the new treatments tested against the current treatments, before they can be used as standard therapy. Because vaginal cancer is very rare, it can be hard to carry out trials on large numbers of women. And it takes a long time to get meaningful results. So you might be offered treatment that has been tested and shown to work in similar types of cancer, such as cervical cancer.

Here is a video on experiences of taking part in a clinical trial:

View a transcript of the video (Opens in a new window) 


HPV vaccines and tests

There is a known link between vaginal cancer and infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV).

New tests are being developed to pick up the types of human papilloma virus that cause cancer. Studies are also going on to find out whether an HPV test should be part of the national screening programme to prevent cervical cancer. It may also prove useful in preventing vaginal cancer.

Vaccines are being developed to stop people from becoming infected with the HPV virus. Researchers are working on other vaccines that will help your immune system to destroy the virus if you have HPV infection.

Vaccines are being developed that might help women with vaginal cancer that has spread or come back after treatment. These vaccines are designed to make your immune system react to abnormal proteins in the cancer cells. The idea is that your immune system will destroy the cancer cells or prevent them from growing. This type of treatment is highly experimental. At this time, cancer vaccines are still largely unproven, and they are available only in clinical trials. 

You can read more about HPV and about the national screening programme to prevent cervical cancer. You can also read more about the immune system, cancer vaccines and clinical trials.


Surgery to rebuild the vagina

Surgeons are always trying to improve their techniques. Some specialist surgeons are investigating better ways to repair and reconstruct the vagina after major surgery for cancer. If this can be done then the quality of life after surgery can be much better.

You can read more about surgery to reconstruct the vagina.


Combining chemotherapy and radiotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs don't work very well for vaginal cancer. But doctors are increasingly using combined chemotherapy and radiotherapy (chemoradiation) for early stage vaginal cancer. This treatment has been shown to work in cervical cancer, and some doctors use it as standard treatment for vaginal cancer. There is information about chemoradiation in the radiotherapy for vaginal cancer section.


Antiviral creams for precancerous cells (VAIN)

VAIN (vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia) means that you have abnormal cells in the vaginal lining. If you have VAIN, there is a risk that it might go on to develop into a cancer. Doctors are looking at treating VAIN using antiviral creams. These creams are not licensed for this use in the UK but you might have them as part of a clinical trial. They include imiquimod and Cidofovir creams.

Imiquimod cream is usually used to treat genital warts. It works by stimulating the immune system. This means it uses the body's natural defenses to kill the HPV. It does this by releasing a number of chemicals called cytokines. One of these cytokines is called interferon. Interferon is a protein made naturally by the body as part of the immune response. Imiquimod makes cells produce more interferon and this helps to kill off the HPV infection. If the HPV is removed, the hope is that the cells affected by VAIN will go back to normal. Imiquimod causes soreness of the skin in the treated area. We do not yet know how helpful it may be in treating VAIN.

Cidofovir cream (or gel) is an antiviral medicine that is quite new and still being investigated as a treatment for VAIN. We don't know yet how useful it is.

You can read more about VAIN (vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia).


Photodynamic therapy for precancerous cells (VAIN)

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) has been studied as a treatment for vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN).

To have PDT, you first have an injection of a light sensitising drug that circulates through your bloodstream and is absorbed by the abnormal cells. After a time, when the drug has had time to collect in the cells, the doctor focuses a bright light onto the abnormal areas. The light activates the drug to kill the cells.

We don't yet know how helpful photodynamic therapy will be for VAIN. This treatment makes all your skin very sensitive to light for a few days. So, during this time you have to stay in a darkened room. And you have to cover up completely from head to foot and wear dark glasses if you go out. 

You can read more about vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN). And there is detailed information about PDT in the other treatments section.


Radiotherapy side effects

After radiotherapy to the pelvic area, some people can have long term side effects such as bowel problems. For example diarrhoea, a need to rush to the toilet more often than normal or bleeding from the back passage. These side effects happen if the radiotherapy causes a thickening of the tissue in the treatment area, making it less stretchy. This is called radiation fibrosis. Doctors are trying to find ways to relieve the problems caused by this tissue damage.

The HOT II trial looked at whether using a high pressure oxygen treatment called hyberbaric oxygen (HBO) therapy could help relieve the long term side effects of radiotherapy to the area between the hip bones (the pelvis). 84 people took part in the trial. The trial team found no evidence that HBO helped people with bowel side effects from radiotherapy. These results disagree with other reports that say HBO is helpful. So the trial team felt larger trials were needed to know for sure.

The PPALM trial is looking at the use of a palm oil supplement and a drug called pentoxifylline to relieve symptoms caused by pelvic radiotherapy. Doctors think these may work well together to reduce radiation fibrosis. The trial team want to find out if this combination of treatment helps, and to learn more about the side effects.

The PREDICT study wants to find out if an electronic nose can predict long term changes in bowel function after pelvic radiotherapy. Everyone has bacteria in their gut. Radiotherapy can change the number of different types of bacteria. Each type of bacteria has an individual smell, which can be picked up by an electronic nose. Looking at the way bacteria changes may help researchers to understand and predict who will and won't experience bowel problems long term.

You can read more about  long term side effects of radiotherapy


Support from women with a similar cancer

Many women have said that getting emotional support when they have gynaecological cancer has helped them to cope. A study in London looked at the difference that this kind of support can make. Women in one group were contacted by a woman who had similar treatment, and had special training in giving support. 

The study found that most patients found that the support helped them to feel less alone and more confident about coming out the other side of their cancer experience. Many said that they had less anxiety and anger, and an increased sense of wellbeing. The supporters also found the process helpful and said it turned a negative experience of cancer into a positive one. You can read detailed results of the support trial on our clinical trials database.

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Updated: 25 September 2015