Antibodies could be useful in detecting HPV-related oral cancer

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Researchers have found a test that could be a useful indicator of human papillomavirus (HPV)-related oropharyngeal cancer a cancer that affects the back portion of the throat near the tonsils.

Scientists at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), in collaboration with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), found that when antibodies against one common sub-types of HPV were present those people who were infected developed the disease more often. This biomarker has the potential to be highly useful in the earlier diagnosis and perhaps prevention for those at high risk for oropharyngeal cancer.

Their study, published online yesterday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found that about 35 percent of those individuals with oropharyngeal cancer had antibodies to HPV compared to one in 100 individuals without cancer. When these antibodies were detectable, they appeared years before the onset of the disease, even ten or more years prior (The average presence of antibodies was six years before clinical diagnosis).

While oropharyngeal cancers have traditionally been associated with tobacco use and alcohol consumption, HPV type 16 (HPV 16) has recently been estimated to cause more than 60 percent of current cases in the United States. The increase in HPV-related cancers has been linked to oral sexual contact.

HPV E6 is one of the viral genes associated with HPV 16, which causes cellular changes that can be precursors to cancer.

The study included 500,000 adults in 10 European countries. Researchers analyzed blood samples of 135 individuals with oropharyngeal cancer. It was found that roughly 35 percent of the individuals with cancer had the antibodies to HPV type 16 in their blood, compared to less than one percent of the samples from individuals without cancer.

Although promising, these findings should be considered preliminary, cautioned Paul Brennan, Ph.D., the lead investigator from IARC. However, he indicates that if these findings hold up we may want to consider using the results to develop a screening tool for this type of cancer.

ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross wondered if this finding may help reduce the toll of throat cancer: Maybe if researchers detect the viral particle, or antigen, even before antibodies develop, that head start could lead to a prevention strategy.