According to the results of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, human papillomaviruses (HPV) are likely to contribute to some cases of oropharyngeal cancer.
The oropharynx is the part of the throat that includes the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils. Exposures that are known to increase the risk of oropharyngeal cancer include tobacco and alcohol use. Research has also suggested that infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) may also play a role.
Human papillomaviruses (HPV) consist of more than 100 different viruses. Some types of HPV cause warts on the hands or feet; others cause genital warts; and some have been linked with cancer, most notably cervical cancer. The types of HPV that account for a majority of cases of cervical cancer are HPV 16 and HPV 18.
To assess the relationship between HPV and oropharyngeal cancer, researchers conducted a study among 100 patients with oropharyngeal cancer and a comparison group of 200 patients without cancer.
- Individuals with a greater number of sexual partners (particularly oral-sex partners) had an increased risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer. The link with number of sexual partners was particularly strong for oropharyngeal cancers that tested positive for HPV 16.
- Individuals with evidence of an oral HPV 16 infection were more than 14-times more likely than uninfected individuals to develop oropharyngeal cancer.
- Specific blood markers of HPV 16 infection were linked with an even greater risk of oropharyngeal cancer.
- HPV 16 increased the risk of oropharyngeal cancer among both users and nonusers of tobacco and alcohol.
- Overall, HPV 16 was detected in 72% of the oropharyngeal cancers.
These results suggest that oral HPV infection increases the risk of oropharyngeal cancer. The researchers note that oral HPV infection is most likely sexually acquired, although transmission through direct mouth-to-mouth contact or other means cannot be ruled out. The researchers also note that there may be two distinct pathways by which oropharyngeal cancers develop: one that is driven primarily by the effects of tobacco and/or alcohol, and one that is driven by the effects of HPV infection.
Reference: D’Souza G, Kreimer AR, Viscidi R et al. Case-control study of human papillomavirus and oropharyngeal cancer. New EnglandJournal of Medicine. 2007;356:1944-56.
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