Christopher Crum, MD, looks at a microscopic view of the squamo-columnar junction cells (in red) in the cervix.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a stealthy virus, often going unnoticed and causing no symptoms. Most sexually-active adults have been exposed to HPV, the culprit in almost all cases of cervical cancer and a virus implicated in many other cancers as well.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Agency for Science Technology and Research in Singapore (ASTAR) recently made an important discovery with the potential to change the way women with HPV are treated.

“We uncovered a discrete group of cells in a specific area of the cervix that could be responsible for most, if not all, HPV-associated cervical cancers,” says Dr. Christopher Crum, Director of Women’s and Perinatal Pathology at BWH.

Dr. Crum and his colleagues, including Dr. Wa Xian of the BWH Department of Pathology and ASTAR, Dr. Frank McKeon of HMS and the Genome Institute of Singapore, and Dr. Michael Herfs, a visiting fellow from the University of Liège, discovered that a population of cells found only in the squamo-columnar junction (located between the part of the cervix that opens to the vagina and the part that opens to the uterus) has the potential of becoming cancerous when infected with HPV, while cells located elsewhere in the cervix do not.

“This finding may guide cancer treatment since the genes of these cells may help physicians distinguish benign tumors from potentially dangerous, precancerous ones,” says Dr. Crum.

When treating precancers, physicians usually aim to remove all precancerous tumors, however, there is still risk that tumors may return. But, when the researchers removed the cells from the squamo-columnar junction, the tumors did not return, so the removal of these cells before they are subject to HPV infection or precancerous changes could potentially reduce the risk of cervical cancer. Further research is needed to evaluate the benefits and risks of this potential therapy, explains Dr. Crum.

HPV vaccines can greatly reduce the risk of HPV infection among adolescents and young adults through the age of 25. They are currently are available for HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18, which are associated with cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and oropharyngeal (head and neck) cancers, as well as genital warts.

Visit the CDC website for more information about the HPV virus and vaccination.


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