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Human Papillomavirus drives a large number of head and neck cancers

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Posted October 10, 2016

Cancers can be caused by a huge variety of factors, both genetic and external. In fact, cancer can be triggered by viruses too. A new research from UCL and the University of Southampton revealed that the number of head and neck cancers driven by Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is larger than previously believed.

There are HPV vaccines and human immune system is able to deal with the virus pretty well too, but it still manages to cause cancer in some cases. Image credit: melvil  via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

There are HPV vaccines and human immune system is able to deal with the virus pretty well too, but it still manages to cause cancer in some cases. Image credit: melvil via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

This virus attacks the skin and the moist membranes that line parts of the body, but immune system is usually able to effectively combat them. However, some types of HPV are much more aggressive and are known to cause cancers, such as particular cervical cancer and tonsil cancers (oropharyngeal cancers). When these diseases start progressing, chances of patient‘s survival are directly linked to the number of immune cells (T-cells) in the tumour. Surprisingly, when the cancer is caused by HPV the tumours usually have more of the T-cells and patients have higher chances of survival.

A new research revealed that HPV is also driving a small percentage of head and neck cancers. It should mean that these cases should be easily treated because of higher number of T-cells, but in these cases it does not work the same way. Dr Tim Fenton, senior author of the study, said: “When we looked at HPV+ cancers at other head and neck sites, we didn’t see the same survival benefit or infiltration of T-cells as we did in the HPV+ tonsil cancers. And we think that this is the major difference in determining the difference in patient prognosis”. Scientists say that head and neck cancers and oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV are different because of the anatomy of the oropharynx (tonsils).

Tonsils contain lymphoid tissue, which already has lots of T-cells. This makes the development of the cancer immediately very visible to the immune system of the body. Scientists are already trying to put results of this research to a practical application. They are creating and testing HPV-targeted therapeutic vaccines. Furthermore, they are going to encourage testing for HPV in other cases of neck and head cancer as well to allow for more tailored treatments.

Scientists are fighting cancer with full force. New generation of therapies should help finally cure this disease. Although it will still take some time, researches like this are steps to the right direction.

Source: ucl.ac.uk

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