In the United States, Human Papillomaviruses (HPVs) are on top of the list when it comes to sexually transmitted infections. Even worse, some strains of this virus can trigger cancers in both sexes.
Typically, people relate HPV to cervical cancer, which occurs as the result of some strains in women. However, recent evidence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that 40% of all HPV-induced cancers affect men.
According to Devraj Basu, MD, Ph.D., the high-risk strains of HPV cause cancer in women and men alike. Unfortunately, these patients are often asymptomatic.
HPV-related Cancers in Men
While women develop cervical cancer, men with high-risk HPV strains are susceptible to throat cancer. Sadly, this type of cancer is increasing in prevalence and is projected to affect more people every year until 2060.
Of course, throat cancer is not exclusive to HPV. However, researchers were able to distinguish between general throat cancer and HPV-related throat cancer back in 2010. In reality, both types of throat cancer are on the rise. Experts are still investigating the triggers of throat cancer in men, as well as the role of HPV in this ordeal. Unlike pap smears, which allow us to screen for cervical cancer during the early stages, we still don’t have any effective screening tool for detecting HPV-related throat cancer.
Today, doctors are still getting overwhelmed with the treatment of throat cancer. Thankfully, scientists at Penn Medicine are investigating a new avenue to lower the incidence of HPV-related cancers of the throat. Since most HPV strains are self-limited, we only have to worry about the high-risk strains. Most strains cause benign growths, such as warts. Additionally, many strains of HPV remain dormant in the body for many years before they become clinically relevant.
Coping With High Incidence of Cancer-causing HPV
Due to the absence of any cure for HPV, the best approach is prevention. Today, there are a number of vaccines that have proven their effectiveness in preventing high-risk HPV strains and their related cancers. With that said, less than 50% of adolescents in the United States have received the HPV vaccine, according to the CDC. This is an extremely low vaccination rate when we know that most people get exposed to high-risk HPV strains in their lifetime.
Luckily, the cure rate of HPV-related throat cancer is relatively high (up to 90%). However, radiation therapy and chemotherapy can lead to some dire side effects. Moreover, these treatments can still cause side effects years after finishing the protocol. Basu adds that HPV-related throat cancer is debilitating due to the age groups it affects. Patients develop throat cancer during their most productive years.
Experts at Penn Medicine are bringing attention to this disease. For example, Basu and Perelman School colleagues Elizabeth White, Ph.D., and Daniel Kelly, MD, conducted a study that revealed the disrupted number of mitochondria in normal and cancerous cells. This was due to an HPV protein known as E6. These findings are interesting because of mitochondria’s role in fighting stress that comes from radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Measuring the levels of E6 can help doctors predict how the patient will respond to different types of cancer therapies. In the near future, doctors will prescribe more specific treatments for HPV-related throat cancer on a case-by-case basis.
As of 2022, the multidisciplinary head and neck cancer team at Penn Medicine have managed to treat more than one thousand patients. This is all thanks to minimally invasive robotic surgery for head and neck cancer. Undoubtedly, this number will continue to grow, and Penn Medicine has the opportunity to come up with new techniques that improve the outcome of patients. Finally, Basu added that their efforts focus on providing scientists at Penn with their experience in the field to identify biomarkers that may potentially lead to developing new screening tests.