The human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause throat cancer and having multiple oral sex partners tops the list of sex practices that boost the risk for the HPV-linked cancer, say researchers from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. Reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study shows a strong connection between the virus and cancer, regardless of whether the subject smoked or drank.
In the study, subjects diagnosed with a prior HPV infection were 32 times more likely to develop throat cancer. This was much higher than the rate increase of around 3 times for smokers and drinkers. Additionally, study participants who reported having more than six oral sex partners in their lifetime were 8.6 times more likely to develop the HPV-linked cancer.
Fellatio and cunnilingus were identified as the main mode of transit for oral HPV infection, but the researchers did not rule out mouth-to-mouth transmission. While most HPV infections clear with little or no symptoms, a small percentage of men and women who acquire cancer-causing strains (such as HPV 16) may develop a cancer. HPV-linked cancers currently include oral, anal, cervical, vaginal, penile, and vulvar cancers.
Somewhat surprisingly, lead researcher Maura Gillison said the study showed no added risk for HPV carriers who smoke and drink alcohol. "It's the virus that drives the cancer," she explained. "Since HPV has already disrupted the cell enough to steer its change to cancer, then tobacco and alcohol use may have no further impact."
Worryingly, HPV-linked oral cancers have been on the rise since the early '70s, and Gillison expects the trend to continue to a point when HPV-associated cancers will far outpace those caused by tobacco and alcohol use.
For those who already have HPV-linked throat cancer, there is some good news. Gillison's previous studies, along with others, showed that these patients have a survival advantage with most living well past the five-year mark. "We're getting more intensive in our cancer treatments and seeing a survival benefit, but it may not be the therapy alone that's causing this. It could also be the increasing percentage of treatment-friendly HPV cancers," suggests Gillison. She now plans further research to see if the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil can be used to ward-off oral HPV infection.
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Source: Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions