Thousands of women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year.
Treatment can be very uncomfortable. Currently, doctors pack the vaginal cavity with gauze to isolate the tumor before doing radiation treatment. But a new biomedical gel that's under development could greatly reduce pain for patients during treatments.
"I think a lot of students don't get this opportunity," said Emily Wilts, a graduate research assistant.
Wilts is one of the researchers. The project is a partnership between Virginia Tech, where work is done in the lab, and the University of Virginia Cancer Center, where patients go for treatment.
"When you're treating gynecological cancers or cervical cancer, you're introducing packing material to help protect healthy tissue around the tumor," said Tim Long, the director of VT Macro Molecules Innovation Institute, who is overseeing the research at Tech. "The problem with that is it's very uncomfortable, often requires anesthesia. There's a lot of anxiety."
Long said the new gel does the same thing, but makes the procedure much easier.
"What we hope it means is that the treatments will be less expensive, easier to access, more comfortable, less anxiety ridden and people will benefit from the technology that we have in all types of communities around the country and around the world," Long said.
Long said some scientists work their whole lives and never have a chance to make this much of a difference.
"It is what I think the modern-day university is all about," Long said. "How do we take laboratory discoveries, innovate them and commercialize them to help society? I think that's definitely possible today in a relationship like this."
Wilts said working on cutting-edge research is rewarding.
"For me, it pushes me every day," Wilts said. "It really is an inspiration when I wake up that, hopefully, at one point, I'll be changing someone's life."
The next step in development for the gel will be clinical trials. Those could happen as soon as next year.