The concept of viral cancer has only recently begun to take root in public awareness, predominantly through the disease of cervical cancer. Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are now known to be caused by the human papilloma virus, HPV, which is transmitted through sexual contact. The 2006 approval of Gardasil, a vaccine against HPV, has offered a preventive measure against infection and cervical cancer.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the cervix is not the only place that HPV-positive cancer can appear. Since the 1980’s, physicians have found the virus in certain cases of head and neck cancer, primarily in younger patients with oropharyngeal tumors. Since then, the incidence of HPV-positive head and neck cancer has increased by 3 percent each year, said Ezra Cohen, an assistant professor of medicine and an expert on the disease.
“Many people are beginning to call this an epidemic, and I think that’s a fair description,” Cohen said. “Three percent may not sound like a lot, but if you multiply that over 30 or 40 years then you have a dramatic increase in the number of cases we are seeing, to the point where now…the majority of patients with oropharyngeal cancer we see in the United States and Western Europe are HPV-positive.”
As a result, the rates of head and neck cancer in the United States have remained steady despite drop-offs in smoking behavior, another major risk factor. Like cervical cancer, the spread of HPV-positive head and neck cancer appears to occur via sexual transmission – in this case oral sex – and the disease may be prevented by early use of the vaccine in both females and males.
In these videos, Cohen explains how the link between HPV and head and neck cancer was originally discovered and how researchers currently think the virus causes cancer to form. Cohen also discusses the use of HPV vaccines in preventing head and neck cancer and the use of HPV as a biomarker for determining the most effective and appropriate treatment for a patient.