KUALA LUMPUR, April 6 — Prof Dr Woo Yin Ling, Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) consultant gynaecological oncologist and professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Malaya (UM), has won the 2023 Rachel Pearline Award for her contribution to cancer research and practice in low-and-middle-income countries.
Dr Woo, the co-founder and trustee of the ROSE Foundation (Removing Obstacles to Cervical Screening), has become the first person from Southeast Asia to be awarded the prestigious prize. The ROSE Foundation runs a cervical screening programme that includes HPV self-sampling.
In her keynote address at the Annual Symposium on Global Cancer Research (ASGCR), Dr Woo said winning the award is a great honour for Malaysia and illustrates the achievement Malaysians can accomplish if they work together.
“It is a great honour for Malaysia,” Dr Woo said. “This recognition is a testament that Malaysians can achieve so much if we work together. Program ROSE is the culmination of a huge collaborative effort from many Malaysians who believe in the vision of a cervical cancer-free Malaysia.”
The Rachel Pearline Award is named after the late Dr Rachel Pearline, an American oncology fellow who devoted her career to advancing global cancer control. It honours exceptional professionals who have demonstrated excellence in global cancer research and practice, with a particular focus on low- and middle-income countries.
Program ROSE, which was launched in 2019 by the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Women, Family, and Community Development, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, was conceptualised by Dr Woo and introduced by the ROSE Foundation.
It is an innovative cervical screening programme that incorporates human papillomavirus (HPV) self-sampling, a novel self-screening technique that is comparable to the nasal Covid-19 test.
Unlike a conventional Pap smear test, which requires the insertion of a speculum into the vagina to widen it and collect cells from the cervix using a small brush, the cervical screening test employed by ROSE does not require a speculum and can be completed independently.
Similar to the nasal Covid-19 test, the cervical screening test requires women to insert the test kit swab into their vagina, rotating it, removing the swab, and returning it to the tube without cleaning or dropping the swab.
After collecting the samples, they are sent to the ROSE laboratory for HPV polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. The results are then delivered to women via SMS within three weeks. For those who test positive for HPV infection, the ROSE Contact Centre will refer them to government hospitals for additional follow-up.
During an interview with CodeBlue in February 2019, Dr Woo revealed that only slightly over one in 10 Malaysian women undergo a pap smear test at least once in their lifetime, despite recommendations stating that the test should be conducted once every three years.
With cervical cancer being the third most common cancer in Malaysian women as per the Malaysian National Cancer Registry Report 2007 to 2011, Dr Woo established ROSE to track all women and remind them to take an HPV cervical screening test upon hitting 35.
At that time, Dr Woo had envisioned ROSE assuming a similar role to the VCS Foundation, which operates a registry of participants in health programmes and oversees screening and vaccination data for the state of Victoria in Australia.
The UM professor explained that a registry was necessary for Malaysia to monitor cervical cancer follow-up for its population, and ROSE would include data management, a call centre, education, and engagement with policymakers.
As of January 2023, during the launch of the third phase of Etiqa’s nationwide cervical cancer screening programme with the ROSE Foundation, it was revealed that Program ROSE had successfully screened more than 21,000 women throughout the country, with 1,210 positive cases identified, and over 90 per cent of them connected to care by the end of December 2022.
Additionally, the programme has screened over 1,000 policewomen, nearly 300 army personnel, 100 immigration frontliners, over 7,500 health care providers from the Ministry of Health (MOH), and 300 education providers from the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) as of January 2023.
Over the course of three years, Program ROSE has expanded to more than 150 communities, 12 health clinics across 12 states, and 28 government hospitals, providing cervical cancer screening through HPV self-sampling.
The programme has also engaged more than 90 health care professionals to provide follow-up treatment for women who tested positive for HPV infection through Program ROSE. Recently, Program ROSE has also introduced on-site colposcopy treatment that can be conducted in the community with the help of two mobile colposcopy devices.
Prof Margaret Stanley, who was Dr Woo’s postdoctoral supervisor at Cambridge University, nominated Dr Woo for the award. She described Dr Woo as a transformational doctor and her cancer screening programme as a model for low and middle-income countries. The programme has revolutionised the prospects of secondary prevention of cervical cancer in Malaysia.
“Rachel Pearline viewed the practice of medicine as a privilege, always striving to serve her patients better, a statement which describes Dr Woo.
“She is an inspirational and transformational doctor whose innovative cervical cancer screening programme – project ROSE – has transformed the prospects for secondary prevention of cervical cancer in Malaysia and is a model for low- and middle-income countries. Dr Woo is a remarkable woman who makes a difference as did Rachel Pearline; she is a more than worthy recipient of this award.”
Dr Satish Gopal, Director of the National Cancer Institute Center for Global Health, described Dr Woo as a remarkable global health leader who has dedicated her career to ensuring that women have equitable access to proven cervical cancer control measures no matter where they live.
“Under her leadership, Malaysia is helping all of us chart a path toward achieving the WHO goal of eliminating cervical cancer worldwide, and I am confident that we will have much to learn from the continued successes of Dr Woo and Program ROSE going forward,” he said.
Dr Woo is also the clinical lead for Every Woman Study (EWS-LMIC), an initiative of the World Ovarian Cancer Coalition to identify challenges and opportunities to improve the survival rate and quality of life for women suffering from ovarian cancer.
She is currently the country representative for the Asia-Oceania Research Organisation in Genital Infection and Neoplasia (AOGIN), member of the Asia Pacific Economic Consortium (APEC) Cervical Cancer working group, and a committee member for policy at the International Papillomavirus Society (IPVS).