When most people think about viruses, the image that likely comes to mind
is that of someone suffering from an infection such as the common cold
or the flu. However, we’ve known for decades that viruses can be
the principal cause of certain types of cancer. One particularly prominent
example is the human papilloma virus, often abbreviated HPV. There are
more than 100 different types of HPV viruses, and they cause numerous
conditions ranging from benign warts to life-threatening malignancy.
The HPV virus accomplishes this by disrupting the normal DNA functions
of the cell leading to overgrowth. Probably the most well-known example
is that of cervix cancer. Fortunately, we are seeing a decreased number
of cervix cases partly due to the fact that we now have an effective vaccine.
One area where we are seeing a significant increasing number of HPV related
cancers are those involving the tongue and throat. This rise has correlated
strongly with changing societal practices, including earlier and more
varied sexual activity and partners. It is predicted that in the coming
years, virus-related cancers from these areas will exceed the number of
cases caused by the more traditional risk factors of smoking and drinking.
It has also become very clear that these particular HPV-related cancers
behave differently in their response to treatment and outcomes. Multiple
clinical trials are underway in order to better define the optimal treatment regimen.
If you have questions about the role of viruses causing cancer, please
submit them via the question box below. For those interested in learning
more about HPV and its role in cancer, I invite you to research the topic on the
National Institutes of Health.