As a group, human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Some forms of the virus are capable of causing cancer in both men and women.
While cervical cancer in women has historically been the most common form of HPV-related cancer, CDC data show that roughly four of every 10 cases of HPV-induced cancer now occur in men.
“The types of HPV that cause cancer can affect both women and men and typically spread among people with no signs or symptoms of infection,” says Devraj Basu, an associate professor of otorhinolaryngology in the Perelman School of Medicine. “But HPV-related cancer cases are now frequently being diagnosed in men.”
The reason for this shift is the growing number of HPV-related cancers of the throat. These cancers more often affect men and are rapidly increasing in the developed world, where they are becoming more common than cervical cancer and are projected to continue rising until the year 2060.
“These HPV-related throat cancers have existed for a long time, but only since around 2010 have we started discriminating them from other types of throat cancer when diagnosing and treating patients,” says Basu, who is an expert on HPV-related throat cancer. “The HPV-related form of throat cancer is also growing in incidence. We do not know yet why it is more common in men and what makes a small fraction of the vast number of people exposed to the virus ultimately develop this cancer type. In addition, we do not yet have a good screening tool for this type of throat cancer, in contrast to the effective screening that exists for cervical cancer using pap smears.”
Penn Medicine experts are shedding new light on the disease and its inner workings. A recent study conducted by Devraj Basu, an associate professor of otorhinolaryngology in the Perelman School of Medicine, Elizabeth White, an assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology head and neck surgery, and Daniel Kelly, director of the Penn Medicine Cardiovascular Institute, finds that levels of a certain HPV protein, E6, affect the number of mitochondria in both normal and cancerous cells. Because mitochondria help cells resist environmental stresses like radiation and chemotherapy, the findings, which appeared in the journal JCI Insight, could have broad clinical implications.
“This study gets at how differences in levels of a particular protein made by the virus help to determine how individual tumors will respond to treatment,” Basu says. “Learning more about the interaction between this protein and mitochondrial function can improve our ability to treat each individual patient’s HPV-related cancer with greater precision and fewer side effects.”
This story by Scott Harris. Read more at Penn Medicine News.