On the Frontier of Medicine
On the Frontier of Medicine

Dr. Mayumi Nakagawa '78 is a professor and the Nettleship Chair at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who specializes in HPV and cancer research.

The following is an interview with Dr. Mayumi Nakagawa, originally published in the 2019 Convent & Stuart Hall President's Report. 

Briefly describe a few milestones in your career journey.
I initially enrolled in medical school at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine [Yeshiva University, New York City] as a regular student in a four-year program. However, I did not find the curriculum stimulating enough and did some research after the second year. My mentor told me to look into obtaining a Ph.D. degree, and I found out that my medical school offered an alternate pathway to the M.D.-Ph.D. program in which one can apply during the second year in medical school. I applied and was accepted.

What is your current position and area of research?
I am a Professor of Pathology in the College of Medicine, a Co-leader of the Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences (CPPS) Program at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, and the current Drs. Mae and Anderson Nettleship Endowed Chair in Oncologic Pathology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. My long-standing research interests have been studying the immune responses against HPV infection, which has led me to develop an HPV therapeutic vaccine. As a co-leader of the CPPS Program, I oversee a group of physicians and scientists whose research interests are focused on cancer prevention through understanding cancer risk factors at the population level and through promoting cancer prevention and screening measures such as HPV prophylactic vaccine, Papanicolaou test, mammography and colonoscopy. In 2017, I was fortunate to be endowed with the Chair which enables me to direct funds for research in addition to grants I receive.

Why HPV immunology? How did you decide to make it a focus of your research?
I was always fascinated by the ability of the immune system to shrink cancerous tumors. In the past, these occurrences were rare and happened sometimes spontaneously, and sometimes as rare good responses to treatments. So, I wanted to explore how to make such successes more commonplace. When I finished my residency training at University of California, San Francisco, there were world-renowned experts in HPV who I decided to work with and to focus on HPV-associated cancers.

Explain your latest project, a Phase II clinical trial testing the effects of a vaccine for treating patients with cervical dysplasia or precancer.
After demonstrating vaccine safety in Phase I, we obtained a go-ahead from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to start a Phase II clinical trial of PepCan. Two treatments are being compared: PepCan and Candidaalone. It is a randomized double-blind study, so we would not know the results until after the clinical trial is completed. The goal is to regress cervical precancer by stimulating a women's immune system so she can avoid surgery. Such surgery is used in routine medical practice and is very effective but it also has a side effect of increasing the chances of having premature babies later on. We plan to vaccinate a total of 80 women in Phase II. If efficacy is demonstrated in Phase II, then a Phase III clinical trial with a larger number of subjects would need to be conducted before an FDA approval can be obtained to make this vaccine widely available.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in medicine?
Sometimes the requirements for biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics may seem daunting, but if you work at your pace one step at a time, it is really not that difficult. Seek out help from someone who can help you, like going to office hours of the professors and/or graduate assistants.

What do you think you've carried with you from your Convent days?
Great friends and good skills in reading, writing and mathematics, which were necessary to succeed at UC Berkeley as a pre-med student.

Thank you for your gift to the Doug Grant endowed fund. Is there a story or memory about Mr. Grant that compelled you to contribute to the fund in his honor?
When I went to Convent, I had just moved from Japan a few years earlier. In Japan, I did not receive good grades in mathematics. However, it was easier in the United States since the material was advanced by one year in Japan. Dr. Grant allowed me to be on self-study and complete multiple years of curriculum during the first year. I also took computer classes from him, which taught me the basics of coding. This early exposure gave me a good foundation and confidence to pursue a career in science and medicine.

Photo credit: University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences