A new study published in PNAS may have the answer to the mystery of how a common medical procedure in the 1920s served to keep the rates of cervical cancer down, says AFP's Kerry Sheridan. In the study, researchers identified a population of stem-like cells that are responsible for most cases of cervical cancer when they are infected with human papillomavirus, Sheridan reports. In the 1920s, it was routine for doctors to cauterize the cervix after a woman gave birth, which burned off abnormal cells and lowered the cervical cancer rate. "Back then, they noted that women who underwent the procedure almost never developed cervical cancer, but they were not sure why," she adds. "Now, doctors believe it was because they were burning off a population of host cells that cannot regenerate." The cells, located at the opening of the cervix at the squamo-columnar junction, appear to be remnants of embryogenesis, the researchers write.
The findings are now causing some clinicians to consider whether the cauterization procedure — or a similar one that freezes the cells instead of burning them off — should be revived, especially in the developing world where cervical cancer rates remain high, Sheridan says. The researchers who conducted the study are also hoping that further study will also show whether these stem-like cells are also associated with other HPV cancers.