Actor Michael Douglas generated a media buzz last month by suggesting his throat cancer was caused by a virus he contracted through oral sex. Now, new scientific research is lending some credence to his claim and spotlighting the rare, but growing risk of HPV-related oral cancers.
Researchers from Moffitt Cancer Center, the National Cancer Institute, Mexico and Brazil are reporting rates of oropharyngeal cancer tied to human papillomavirus (HPV) have been increasing rapidly, especially among men.
The study, published in The Lancet, determined smokers and single men are more likely to acquire the virus and face an increased risk of oral cancer. The researchers noted HPV infection is known to cause virtually all cervical cancers, most anal cancers, and some genital cancers. But it has also recently been found to cause of the majority of oropharyngeal cancers, a malignancy of the tonsils and base of tongue.
"Some types of HPV, such as HPV16, are known to cause cancer at multiple places in the body, including the oral cavity," said lead researcher Christine M. Pierce Campbell, a postdoctoral fellow in Moffitt's Center for Infection Research in Cancer. "We know that HPV infection is associated with oropharyngeal cancer, but we don't know how the virus progresses from initial infection to cancer in the oral cavity. One aspect of the [study] is to gather data to help us understand the natural history of these infections."
For the study, researchers evaluated the HPV infection status in oral mouthwash samples from men undergoing research into the rate of genital HPV infections. Over a 12-month period, nearly 4.5 percent of men in the study acquired an oral HPV infection. Less than 1 percent of men in the study had an HPV16 infection, the most commonly acquired type, and less than 2 percent had a cancer-causing type of oral HPV.
Their findings are consistent with previous studies showing oral HPV cancers are rare, but most common among smokers and unmarried men.
"Additional HPV natural history studies are needed to better inform the development of infection-related prevention efforts," said Anna R. Giuliano, director of Moffitt's Center for Infection Research in Cancer. "HPV16 is associated with the rapid increase in incidence of oropharyngeal cancer, most noticeably in the United States, Sweden and Australia, where it is responsible for more than 50 percent of cases. Unfortunately, there are no proven methods to prevent or detect these cancers at an early stage."
The researchers note that persistent oral HPV16 infection may be a precursor to oropharyngeal cancer, similar to how persistent cervical HPV infection leads to cervical pre-cancer.
The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute.
In an interview with The Guardian
newspaper last month Douglas said his cancer had been caused by having contracted HPV, which he said led to cancer.
"It's a sexually transmitted disease," Douglas said of the virus.
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