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HPV Tied to One-Third of Throat Cancer Cases, Study Reports

Update Date: Jul 22, 2013 11:02 AM EDT

HPV, the human papillomavirus, is most often associated with cervical cancer and genital warts. Although this sexually transmitted illness (STI) is believed to be more of a threat to females since the high-risk strains of the virus lead to cervical cancer, recent studies have found that HPV can lead to other cancers for men as well. Due to these studies and the fact that HPV is spread from people to people sexually, recent campaigns have pushed for young boys to get vaccinated along with girls. The vaccination process might be even more important now that a new study tied HPV to a third of throat cancer cases.

For this study, researchers focused on HPV and oropharyngeal cancer. The researchers evaluated data of participants from a huge prospective study focused on lifestyle and cancer. The participants were all healthy at the start of this study. The researchers looked at the blood samples that were provided to test antibodies that develop in response to one of HPV's key proteins. The presence of these antibodies, E6 indicated that HPV might have already started penetrating through the body's defense system.

The team then proceeded to compare the blood tests of 135 people who ended up developing throat cancer to 1,599 people who remained cancer free. The research team from the University of Oxford found that 35 percent of throat cancer patients had the antibodies. Less than one percent of the people from the cancer free group had these antibodies. Surprisingly the researchers also found that people with these antibodies were more likely to survive throat cancer. Around 84 percent of the patients with the antibodies were still living five years after the initial diagnosis in comparison to the 58 percent of patients without the antibodies. 

"These striking results provide some evidence that HPV-16 infection may be a significant cause of oropharyngeal cancer," Dr. Ruth Travis, one of the researchers, said according to BBC News. Travis is a Cancer Research UK scientist at Oxford.

"Practicing safer sex may reduce the risk of getting or passing on HPV, but condoms won't stop infections completely," Sara Hiom from Cancer Research UK said. "If the HPV vaccine can also protect against oral HPV infections and cancers, then it could have a broader potential protective effect, but we don't have enough research yet to tell us."

In another study, researchers tested the effectiveness of HPV vaccines in over 7,400 women between the ages of 18 to 25. The researchers reported that the vaccine was 93 percent effective in preventing oral cancers. This report, published in PLOS ONE, suggests that the HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, could potentially also be used to protect people from HPV-related throat cancer.

The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology

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