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4 September 2006
Semen: A Potentially Nasty Brew
by Serena Mackesy

Sex isn't just a way to create new members of the human race; it's also a remarkably efficient way to spread disease. Soldiers in WWII were issued with condoms and put up on charges if they caught something by not using them. This wasn't a moral judgment, but a practical one: a soldier with a syphilitic ulcer on his dangly bits is a far less efficient soldier. And yet, in the sophisticated, knowledgeable 21st century, when protection is available with greater ease, with less potential for embarrassment and in more convenient forms than ever before, levels of disease as well as unwanted pregnancies have been skyrocketing in Western nations. We don't have the excuses of ignorance, poverty, or lack of access; we've only got our stupid, reckless selves to blame.

One of the problems with sex is that every generation thinks that they invented it. The children of those of us who were scared stupid by the public health AIDS campaigns have now reached physical maturity, and worryingly, a significant proportion of them seem to be convinced that their parents' exhortations to practice safe sex are so much fuddy-duddy moralizing from people who've never done it. But the safe sex message has never been more important, particularly in light of new research that found men's semen to be, well, unhealthy. So, girls, here's the message: It doesn't matter how drunk you are, or how much you don't want to spoil "the moment": Make. Him. Wear. A. Condom.

So, what's the scoop on the new research? Well, scientists at the Medical Research Council Human Reproductive Sciences Unit have just announced findings into the role of prostaglandins in the progression of cervical and uterine cancer, and have come up with the startling finding that there is a link. Or, as study leader, Dr Henry Jabbour, puts it: "recently a role for COX enzymes and prostaglandins has been ascertained in reproductive tract pathology, including carcinomas, menorrhagia (heavy bleeding), dysmenorrhoea (painful periods) and endometriosis. Although the mechanism by which prostaglandins modulate these pathologies is still unclear, a large body of evidence supports a role for COX enzymes, prostaglandins and prostaglandin receptor signaling pathways in angiogenesis, apoptosis and proliferation, tissue invasion and metastases and immunosuppression. Following biosynthesis, prostaglandins exert an autocrine/paracrine function by coupling to specific G protein-coupled receptors to activate intracellular signaling and gene transcription."

Uh, yeah, right. Translation, please! Prostaglandins are basically lipids found in fatty acids. They are present in pretty much every cell in the body. They are, however, present in semen at roughly 1,000 times the concentration that they are in the female reproductive organs. And what the findings of the study are basically saying is this: if you've got cervical, or uterine, cancer, the level of receptors in your reproductive organs are elevated. The autocrine/paracrine thing relates to the self-stimulation of existing factors through cellular reproduction; in normal tissue this is normal cellular behavior. It is also, though, the fundamental factor in the growth and spread of abnormal tumor cells. So, in a sexually active woman, even if the synthesis of prostaglandins in their own tissues was blocked, it made no difference to the progress of the cancer. From this, they have extrapolated that it is the prostaglandin in the semen that is driving the tumor growth forward.

It's a good idea to put this into perspective, however, before you run off screaming to a nunnery. This from Professor John Toy, medical director at Cancer Research UK: "This is an interesting piece of laboratory research but it has little relevance to women already diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK because they will already be receiving appropriate anti-cancer treatment. The likelihood of any unprotected sex affecting the successful outcome of their treatment is considered slight. The most important thing that women can do at this time to prevent cervical cancer from developing is to go for regular cervical smear tests."

Sound advice. However, there are two things at play here. One, cervical and uterine cancers are notoriously difficult to spot in their early stages (and even in the later ones). They're not like breast cancers, where generally, sufferers notice a lump: rather, they just lurk there in the dark. That's why regular smear tests are part of the preventative canon and your best way of keeping yourself safe from those particular nasties. But, you know, it's still better to be safe than sorry, because you don't want to be encouraging anything you've got to get worse before it's discovered and you can go into treatment.

Especially when you take into account factor number two: where most cervical cancers actually come from. That's the human papilloma virus. A rather pretty-sounding scientific name for genital warts. Warts. On your twinkle. Think about it. There is a long-established link between HPV and cervical cancer. And, along with all the other STDs currently gaining ground in our careless, sexualized world, HPV is spreading more every year. And the most effective way to not catch them? Make. Him. Wear. A. Condom.

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