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HPV Rears its Cancerous Head

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There are 130 unique types of Human Papillomavirus, several kinds of which are known to cause cervical cancer. Researchers are now finding, however, that HPV is also causing head and neck cancers in many regions of the world, according to Ohio State University’s Maura Gillison. Head and neck cancers are driven by environmental conditions such as tobacco use, Gillison said at last week’s AMP conference. Researchers are also currently studying the role of the oral microbiome in these diseases, she added. But incidences of HPV-positive head and neck cancers are increasing. Patients suffering from head and neck cancers are getting younger and the risk factors are changing from alcohol and tobacco use to oral sex and marijuana use (which is thought to be immunosuppressive), Gillison said. However, the good news is that patients with HPV-positive head and neck cancer have a 50 percent reduction in risk of death from HPV-negative cancer. The relative survival for HPV-positive patients is also independent of therapy, leading to the conclusion that therapy for these patients can be de-intensified, Gillison said. She and her team are trying to develop and assay to be used in clinical labs to determine whether tumors are HPV-positive or –negative.

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