UAB physician and researcher Warner Huh, M.D., has been selected as the recipient of the 2009 American Cancer Society Lifesaver Award, which is presented each year by the group’s Birmingham office. It recognizes a medical professional for extraordinary kindness, compassion and excellence as a caregiver.

UAB physician and researcher Warner Huh has been selected as the recipient of the 2009 American Cancer Society Lifesaver Award.
“It is an enormous honor to receive this award, and I consider taking care of women in the state of Alabama with gynecologic malignancies to be a privilege and an opportunity to make a difference,” Huh says. “It is important to recognize that gynecologic cancer care is always a team effort, and my partners, nurses, fellows, residents and staff deserve as much recognition as I do.

“Compassion, kindness and excellence tend to be reflection of one’s training and past experiences, and I also would like to credit my mentors at UAB for setting a fine example and high standards,” Huh said.

Huh is an associate professor in the UAB Division of Gynecologic Oncology and an associate scientist in the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. An expert in minimally invasive, robotic surgery, he was the first physician in Alabama to use a surgical robot to remove uterine and cervical cancers. He began using minimally invasive, robotic surgery in June 2006 for women who require hysterectomies, hysterectomies with staging for endometrial cancers and radical hysterectomies for early-stage cervical cancer.

Huh also is a renowned researcher in human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines and a noted leader in the development of women’s cancer-screening and treatment guidelines. He was one of the first in Alabama to test Gardasil, the only cervical cancer vaccine that helps protect against four types of HPV.

Huh spoke with the UAB Reporter recently about the advantages of minimally invasive, robotic surgery, HPV and research:

Q: What impact has the robotic surgery had in your treatment of uterine and cervical cancers?
A. In my honest opinion, robotic surgery has revolutionized how gynecologic oncologists approach minimally invasive surgery. It has allowed me to provide an unprecedented number of women with a minimally invasive approach. Its impact on my practice cannot be overstated.

Q. What are some advantages to this surgery for women with uterine and cervical cancers?
A. The main advantages are smaller incisions, substantially less post-operative pain, quicker recovery, less blood loss and quicker return to normal activity. This advantage is most notable in obese patients.

Q. What is HPV and how long it has been an issue for women?
A. Human Papillomavirus (or HPV) is one of the most common cancer-causing viruses. Professor Harald zur Hausen, the recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine, initially suspected a link between HPV and cervical cancer almost 30 years ago.

Q. Do we know enough about Gardasil now for parents to make informed decisions on whether or not to vaccinate their daughters?
A. Gardasil was approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 2006, and since that time we have acquired a substantial amount of information from its administration in the United States and ongoing information from large Phase III clinical trials. This data has provided health-care providers, patients and parents important information on the overall safety and efficacy of this vaccine.

Q. What would you say to allay parents’ apprehension about the vaccine? Is this something you would do for your daughter or niece?
A. This vaccine is really about preventing cervical cancer and other important HPV-related diseases. From that perspective, it is difficult not to provide your daughter with a true cancer-prevention vaccine that can have substantial protective benefits in her lifetime. Every time I see a new cervical cancer patient, I always wonder if this particular woman would be in my office if the HPV vaccine was offered or administered to her. Would I vaccinate my two daughters? Absolutely. Cervical cancer is a terrible disease that affects women and also has a ripple effect on their children, spouses and families.

Q. How much of an issue is the affordability of Gardasil? Are any other vaccines being tested that may be less expensive?
A. Affordability does continue to be an issue for this vaccine, particularly in this state. However, the Cancer Center, our division and other pivotal groups are working hard to make this vaccine more readily available to everyone. I have a grant that focuses on developing a novel HPV vaccine that is substantially cheaper and will make global vaccination more affordable — particularly in developing nations that cannot afford screening and expensive vaccination programs.

Q. Can a woman tell if she has HPV without undergoing a pap smear or other medical tests? If so, how?
A. HPV is largely an asymptomatic infection that is usually detected on Pap smears or HPV tests. The good news is that the overwhelming majority of HPV infections resolve spontaneously.

Q. What is the best way for women to be tested for HPV? Is there an age group more at risk than others?
A. There are currently two FDA-approved tests for HPV, specifically high-risk types of HPV associated with cervical cancer. It is recommended by most professional groups and societies that women age 30 and older undergo concurrent Pap and HPV testing. With this approach, if both tests are negative, she can repeat these tests every three years in lieu of yearly testing. Plus, the risk of developing cervical cancer during this time period is remarkably small.

Q. Are treatments being investigated or tested for women who have HPV that may enable them to avoid surgical procedures in which the infected part of the cervix is removed?
A. Yes, there are several trials testing novel agents that stimulate the immune system to recognize specific HPV genes as possible alternatives to surgery and other related procedures. In fact, we are about to start a trial in collaboration with Johns Hopkins that is testing one of these new immunotherapeutic agents.