Inexpensive Blood Test Reveals HPV Presence, Potential Cancer Risk
June 18, 2013

Inexpensive Blood Test Reveals HPV Presence, Potential Cancer Risk

Brett Smith for — Your Universe Online

Earlier this month, actor Michael Douglas raised the prospect of oral sex leading to throat cancer through the transmission of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus known to cause the disease in some individuals.

According to a new study from a team of international researchers in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, blood tests can be used to detect the presence of the virus via the body´s production of telltale antibodies years before onset of cancer.

"Up to now, it was not known whether these antibodies were present in blood before the cancer became clinically detectable," study co-author Paul Brennan, a cancer researcher with the World Health Organization, told Reuters.

"If these results are confirmed, future screening tools could be developed for early detection of the disease," he said.

HPV is more commonly known for causing cervical cancer, but it can also cause cancers of the mouth and throat, particularly in men. According to the WHO´s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), about 30 percent of all oral cancers are determined to be HPV-related.

A 2010 study found rapidly rising rates of HPV-related head and neck cancer linked to HPV, prompting some doctors to suggest that unsafe oral sex practices were on the rise. Some doctors even called for boys and girls to be offered vaccinations for HPV.

Using data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), which includes 500,000 people from ten European countries, researchers found that one-third of participants who developed cancer during the study had HPV-specific antibodies up to twelve years before the onset of the deadly disease.

Brennan said the study´s findings mean that early detection could allow for the tracking of HPV patients and intervening in the early stage of tumor development.

"The earlier the detection, the better the treatment and the greater the survival," he noted.

According to reports, the study´s antibody test was somewhat simple and cheap. It could allow for more widespread screening within about five years if future clinical studies can verify these initial results, Brennan said.

He also cautioned that more work should be done to improve the tests' accuracy. The researchers saw about one percent "false positives" on their study - where the presence of HPV-specific antibodies did not translate into the development of oral cancer.

Brennan noted that patients with oral cancers linked to HPV were three times more likely to survive into their sixth year after diagnosis than oral cancer patients with non-HPV tumors, which may have been the result of heavy smoking or drinking.

While Michael Douglas´ statement earlier this month was readily used as tabloid fodder and apparently misinterpreted, he did raise the issue of HPV-related oral cancer, a type of HPV-related cancer that is perhaps less well-known than cervical cancer.

Public health advocates around the world have been promoting the idea of widespread vaccination against the sexually-transmitted HPV. A notion that has been resisted based on political or religious grounds. A recently published study from Queen Mary, University of London, found that a third of cervical cancer cases could be prevented every year in England if the country implemented wider testing for HPV.