HPV may lurk in your throat

January 31, 2018, University of Rochester Medical Center
Tonsil crypts with human papillomavirus (HPV; green) in epithelial and biofilm (red) layers ('V' = biofilm; 'G' =HPV; original magnification×20). Credit: Katherine Rieth. M.D.

Human papilloma virus (HPV), the culprit behind cervical cancer and some forms of head and neck cancer may hide in small pockets on the surface of tonsils in people not known to carry the virus. The finding, reported by University of Rochester Medical Center researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association, could be pivotal for the prevention of oropharyngeal cancers that form on the tonsils and tongue.

By mid-adulthood, most people have been exposed to HPV. The same strains that cause cervical cancer (mainly HPV 16 and 18) cause head and cancers. While verified tests exist to detect HPV in people before they develop cervical cancer, the same is not true for HPV-related head and neck cancers, which are expected to outnumber cases by 2020.

Only about five percent of HPV-infected people will develop cancer of the mouth or throat, suggesting most people's immune systems can easily hold back HPV infections. Which begs the question, why doesn't the immune system protect the five percent who develop cancer?

Matthew Miller, M.D., associate professor of Otolaryngology and Neurosurgery at URMC believes the answer lies is biofilms - thin, slimy sheets of bacteria. He and his colleagues found HPV encased in biofilms inside pockets on the tonsil surface, called tonsil crypts, which is where HPV-related head and neck cancers often originate.

Miller and study co-author, Katherine Reith, M.D., an Otolaryngology resident at URMC, studied tissue samples from 102 patients who had elective tonsillectomies. Five of those samples contained HPV and four contained high risk strains, HPV 16 and 18. In every case, HPV was found in tonsil crypts biofilms.

The group believes HPV is shed from the tonsil during an active infection and gets trapped in the biofilm, where it may be protected from immune attack. In the crypts, the virus likely lays in wait for an opportunity to reinstate infection or invade the tonsil tissue to develop .

"Given the lack of universal HPV immunization and the potential for the virus to evade the immune system even in individuals with detectable HPV in their blood, our findings could have far-reaching implications for identifying people at risk of developing HPV-related head and neck cancers and ultimately preventing them," Miller said.

Now, the team plans to investigate potential screening tools, such as an oral rinse, to detect HPV in the mouth and throat. The next step would be to develop topical antimicrobials that would disrupt the biofilm and allow the immune system to clear the virus.

While scientists still do not know if HPV vaccines reduce and , Miller recommends all young boys and girls receive a full course of the vaccinations. He hopes that better oral HPV screening tools will help determine the impact of the vaccine on these cancers.

Explore further: Facts women and men should know about cervical cancer

More information: Katherine K. S. Rieth et al, Prevalence of High-Risk Human Papillomavirus in Tonsil Tissue in Healthy Adults and Colocalization in Biofilm of Tonsillar Crypts, JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery (2018). DOI: 10.1001/jamaoto.2017.2916

Related Stories

Facts women and men should know about cervical cancer

January 22, 2018
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month and the message from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention is that "no woman should die from cervical cancer."

New research sheds light on role of HPV in head and neck cancers

October 7, 2016
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) drives a greater number of head and neck cancers than previously thought, finds new research from UCL and the University of Southampton.

Study examines rates of common oral infection that can cause mouth cancer

October 26, 2016
Researchers at the University of Derby have carried out the first pilot study in the UK looking at the rates of a common oral infection in young healthy adults which can cause cancer in the mouth.

Study examines link between HPV and risk of head and neck cancers

January 21, 2016
Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine have found that when human papillomavirus (HPV)-16 is detected in peoples' mouths, they are 22 times more likely than those without HPV-16 to develop a type of head and neck ...

World Trade Center responders might face greater risk of HPV throat and tongue cancer

September 8, 2017
Researchers at Rutgers University – investigating the causes of head and neck cancers in World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers – will take the lead in a study to determine whether the responders are at a greater ...

Vaccine may cut HPV infections, an oral cancer risk, in men

May 17, 2017
The HPV vaccine that helps prevent cervical cancer in women also might lower the risk in young men of oral infections that can cause mouth and throat cancers, a new study finds.

Recommended for you

Infants born to obese mothers risk developing liver disease, obesity

November 16, 2018
Infant gut microbes altered by their mother's obesity can cause inflammation and other major changes within the baby, increasing the risk of obesity and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease later in life, according to researchers ...

New study shows NKT cell subsets play a large role in the advancement of NAFLD

November 16, 2018
Since 2015 it has been known that the gut microbiota could have a direct impact on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which affects up to 12% of adults and is a leading cause of chronic liver disease. In the November ...

Antibiotic prescribing influenced by team dynamics within hospitals

November 15, 2018
Antibiotic prescribing by doctors is influenced by team dynamics and cultures within hospitals.

Zika may hijack mother-fetus immunity route

November 14, 2018
To cross the placenta, Zika virus may hijack the route by which acquired immunity is transferred from mother to fetus, new research suggests.

Maternally acquired Zika immunity can increase dengue disease severity in mouse pups

November 14, 2018
To say that the immune system is complex is an understatement: an immune response protective in one context can turn deadly over time, as evidenced by numerous epidemiological studies on dengue infection, spanning multiple ...

New research aims to help improve uptake of hepatitis C testing

November 14, 2018
New research published in Scientific Reports shows persisting fears about HIV infection may impact testing uptake for the hepatitis C Virus (HCV).

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.