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Can Gwen Ifill’s Death Spur Cancer Innovation?

2012 Summer TCA Tour - Day 22012 Summer TCA Tour - Day 2
The journalistic powerhouse succumbed to cancer on Monday.Photo by Frederick M. Brown—Getty Images

This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

Gwen Ifill, the pioneering journalist who spent three decades covering government and national politics for the Washington Post, New York Times, PBS, and others, died yesterday of endometrial cancer—She was 61.

One of the first African American women to anchor a major political talk show, Ifill was an ever-authoritative, charming, and deeply informed moderator on PBS’s Washington Week and, later, NewsHour, where she served as co-anchor. “She was one of the best human beings I ever worked with,” remembers Alan Murray, Time Inc.’s chief content officer and my boss at Fortune, who was often one of Ifill’s guests at the “Washington Week” roundtable. “She was smart, considerate, focused—an absolute joy to work with. There are people who have TV personas. Ifill didn’t,” he says. “She was that wonderful.”

As much as Ifill’s life was inspirational, though, her death is a clarion call for medical and public health innovators. Just over 60,000 cases of uterine cancer will be diagnosed this year, of which roughly nine in 10 will begin in cells of the endometrium—the lining of the uterus. (Cancers of the uterine cervix are counted separately.) Incidence rates in American women, and in other developed countries, have been increasing in recent years—with the rate of new cases in those under age 50 climbing by 1.3% a year since 1988.

On the whole, it’s one of the more treatable cancers—with five-year survival rates at 83%. But there are two catches with that: the first is that the relatively high survival rate masks the fact that an estimated 10,470 women will die of the disease in 2016—yes, a staggeringly high number. And the second is that survival rates in African American women are—as they are in so many cancers—significantly lower than they are for whites: with 66% of black women surviving five years from diagnosis versus 85% of white women.

Cases of endometrial cancers are caught, as a rule, haphazardly—when women experience unusual spotting or bleeding and go to the doctor. There is no simple blood test, for example, that can detect these cancers early on when they may be more treatable.

One recent study suggests that certain proteins that activate other proteins (called proprotein convertases) may be sharply elevated in women across all stages of endometrial cancer, and may be detectable through a biochemical test—though that test, as of now, relies on getting fluid directly from the uterine cavity, and so is likely to be too invasive for widespread use. And last month, in another sign of progress, a research team at Yale reported finding a group of genetic mutations that are common to one of the deadliest subtypes of endometrial cancer, tumors known as carcinosarcomas. That, too, may offer an early warning one day.

But the slow pace of discovery here offers an opportunity for new methods of detection. I’ll report on some of those in future essays.