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What's New in Vulvar Cancer Research and Treatment?

Vulvar cancer is rare, which makes it hard to study. Still, research is being done to find new ways to prevent and treat cancer of the vulva. There are some promising new developments.

Oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes

Scientists are learning more about how certain genes called oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes control cell growth and how changes in these genes cause normal vulvar cells to become cancer. This information is already being used to develop new drugs that counteract the effects of these gene changes. The ultimate goal of this research is gene therapy. Gene therapy involves replacing the damaged genes in cancer cells with normal genes in order to stop the abnormal behavior of these cells.

Drug treatments

Researchers are learning more about the gene and protein changes that take place in vulvar cancer cells. Drugs that target changes like these are already being used to treat other cancers. There have been case reports of using these drugs known as targeted therapies to treat vulvar cancers, too. These drugs do not have the same kind of side effects as traditional chemo drugs do. So far, the drugs cetuximab and erlotinib have been tried and doctors have reported some success in a few patients. Sometimes cetuximab is combined with cisplatin chemotherapy for treatment. These drugs need further study.

Surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy

Clinical trials are being done to determine the best way to use and combine surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. These trials will provide information about whether certain groups of patients benefit from radiation after surgery and whether patients with cancer that has spread to lymph nodes benefit from chemotherapy or pelvic radiation therapy.

The use of internal radiation therapy, called brachytherapy, along with external beam radiation is being studied. This form of radiation is done by placing tiny pieces of radioactive material right into the tumor. It's already used to treat other types of cancer, and women with certain vulvar tumors might benefit from it, too. More research is needed to find out if and when this treatment might improve treatment outcomes.

Identifying lymph nodes

Another area of interest is lymph node mapping. Vulvar cancer can spread to lymph nodes in the groin. Better ways to look for this spread and identify nodes with cancer might help doctors treat these nodes and decrease the risk of cancer coming back there. It could also allow them to save the healthy nodes and decrease the risk of long-term swelling in the groin and legs, called lymphedema.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Palisoul ML, Mullen MM, Feldman R, Thaker PH. Identification of molecular targets in vulvar cancers. Gynecol Oncol. 2017;146(2):305-313.

Rao YJ, Hui C, Chundury A, et al. Which patients with inoperable vulvar cancer may benefit from brachytherapy in addition to external beam radiation? A Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results analysis. Brachytherapy.

Sakae C, Yamaguchi K, Matsumura N, et al. Groin lymph node detection and sentinel lymph node biopsy in vulvar cancer. J Gynecol Oncol. 2016;27(6):e57.

Last Revised: January 16, 2018

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