Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center have conclusive evidence that human papillomavirus (HPV) causes some throat cancers in both men and women. Reporting in the May 10 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers found that oral HPV infection is the strongest risk factor for the disease, regardless of tobacco and alcohol use, and having multiple oral sex partners tops the list of sex practices that boost risk for the HPV-linked cancer.
Study author and cancer virus expert Maura Gillison, M.D., Ph.D., first reported the connection between HPV and specific throat cancers in 2000, supporting previous work by other investigators. "We believed the links were strong, but needed to understand which behaviors put people at higher risk," says Gillison.
Gillison added that "people should be reassured that oropharyngeal cancer is relatively uncommon, and the overwhelming majority of people with an oral HPV infection probably will not get throat cancer," says Gillison. Consistent condom use may reduce risk.
In Gillisons study of 100 men and women newly diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer (located in the tonsils, back of the tongue, and throat), those who had evidence of prior HPV infection were 32 times more likely to develop the cancer. This was much higher than the rate increase of threefold for smokers and 2 -fold for drinkers. Study participants who reported having more than six oral sex partners in their lifetime were 8.6 times more likely to develop the HPV-linked cancer. In a surprising twist, Gillison says their data show no added risk for HPV carriers who smoke and drink alcohol. "Its the virus that drives the cancer," explains Gillison, an assistant professor of oncology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins. "Since HPV has already disrupted the cell enough to steer its change to cancer, then tobacco and alcohol use may have no further impact."