One Woman at a Time
By Dorothy Wright
“Out of the rolling ocean the crowd came a drop gently to me…” begins a poem by Walt Whitman. One might think of that opening line as Terri Cornelison ’81 describes her roles as a research director and practicing physician.
Terri Cornelison '81
“I was a clinician first and a scientist second, and my heart is in both realms,” Cornelison observes. “I work in a public health environment where many people are epidemiologists who view the world in units of thousands-of-women at a time. I still view the world one woman, one patient, at a time.”
Cornelison is a program director in the Breast and Gynecologic Cancer Research Group of the Division of Cancer Prevention at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Bethesda, Md., overseeing clinical trials in the prevention of gynecologic malignancies. She also is a practicing gynecologic oncologist with privileges at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center and The Johns Hopkins Hospital; and is an assistant professor in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore.
Focus on Ob/Gyn
After earning her M.D. at Yale University, Cornelison became interested in gynecologic oncology during her obstetrics and gynecology residency at Beth Israel Hospital, Boston. “I was interested in surgery and intrigued by the notion of cancer. At that time we knew so little about cancer, and there were volumes of questions that needed to be answered. It was tremendously challenging.”
After practicing obstetrics and gynecology for a year, Cornelison invested three years in cancer research; two at NCI’s Ovarian Cancer Section and one in the pathology department of the Uniformed Services University, Bethesda. She then returned to clinical medicine after earning a fellowship in gynecologic oncology. Only about 30 applicants are accepted to gynecologic oncology programs in the United States each year, and very few accepted applicants are women, according to Cornelison. “Just 10 years ago, the field was primarily a boys’ club, and in many ways it remains so,” she says. “I was only the second woman in 25 years to be trained at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. But times have improved and more women are gaining leadership positions in gynecologic oncology. It is a very satisfying thing to see.”
Cornelison returned to research as the first jointly appointed Gynecologic Cancer Foundation/National Cancer Institute (GCF/NCI) research fellow, examining the role of cytokine inhibition in reducing radiation-induced fibrosis. At the same time she pursued her Ph.D. in molecular and cellular oncology at George Washington University.
Breakthroughs in Prevention
Today, as a program director in NCI’s Breast and Gynecologic Cancer Research Group, Cornelison is overseeing a project to develop prophylactic and therapeutic vaccines against human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV infection, a sexually transmitted disease, interferes with cervical cells’ ability to repair damaged DNA, setting the stage for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer worldwide and is the second largest cancer killer of women: about 500,000 women are diagnosed each year, and 250,000 will die of the disease.
“The recognized role of HPV in cervical cancer has been a major breakthrough in the medical community because we now know that this disease is caused by sexual exposure to the virus,” she says. “Knowing this enables scientists to develop strategies to prevent cervical cancer.”
HPV vaccination requires two strategies: a prophylactic and a therapeutic vaccine. The prophylactic vaccine prevents infection, while the therapeutic vaccine eliminates precancerous cells before they become a cancer lesion. “However, because the prophylactic vaccine only works in individuals who have not been exposed to the virus, and the virus can show up in girls as young as 10, the therapeutic vaccine is needed for girls and women who have already been exposed to the virus,” Cornelison explains. “Effective HPV vaccines will have a huge impact on women’s health.”
Cornelison says that a broader area of discovery applicable to all cancers will be the development and engineering of diagnostic and treatment abilities that target cancers on the biomolecular level, for example, by blocking the activity of an overactive protein.
As a research administrator, Cornelison’s work has the potential to affect millions of women. “But that connection is not obvious,” she says. “As a clinician, the connections with my patients are immediate. And at the end of the day, it is gratifying to know that I have done the best I can to take care of the women I have come into contact with that day.”
Cornelison says her clinical assistants are always reminding her to stay on schedule. “When I am with a patient, I don’t look at my watch,” she says. “I want my patient to understand why she is taking certain medications and why it is important for her to have a particular procedure. I’ve seen the light emerge on the faces of many women who have been looking for and have found answers to their questions.”
Cornelison is frequently asked where she gets the energy to excel as both a clinician and a scientist. Her answer: “From my patients — from the incredible strength that each woman has within her. She does not always know it is there, but when she needs it, she taps into it. It is a marvelous and wonderfully inspiring thing.”
Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.