Throat cancer ‘could be spotted 40 YEARS before it strikes’

Patients at risk of throat cancer ‘could be spotted 40 YEARS before it strikes’ by looking for antibodies against the HPV virus, researchers claim

  • Patients who have HPV antibodies in their blood are at higher risk of the disease
  • Blood samples taken 40 years before patients were diagnosed tested positive
  • Academics now hope the findings could lead to a way of spotting people at risk 

Doctors could spot patients at high risk of throat cancer decades before it develops, research suggests.

Scientists found patients who have HPV antibodies present in their blood face up to a 100-fold increased risk of the disease.

Samples taken from a handful of patients 40 years before they were diagnosed tested positive for the antibodies, researchers said.

Academics now hope the findings could lead to a way of spotting people who are at high risk of developing the form of cancer. 

Scientists found patients who have HPV antibodies present in their blood face up to a 100-fold increased risk of the disease

The main causes of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, the type of throat cancer analysed in this study, are smoking and alcohol use.

However, infection with HPV16 – spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex – is thought to cause around 70 per cent of the cases.

Researchers analysed data from 743 patients with OPSCC. They were compared to 5,800 people without the disease.

They were all part of the HPV Cancer Cohort Consortium study, which saw them regularly provide scientists with blood samples.

Samples were tested for antibodies against HPV16, a strain of the common STI that also plays a role in other forms of cancer.

Some samples dated as far back as 40 years before their diagnosis, the scientists wrote in the journal Annals of Oncology.

The average time between the first positive blood sample collection and a diagnosis of OPSCC was slightly more than 11 years.

Only 0.4 per cent of the patients – 22 of them – in the group without cancer had HPV antibodies present in their blood samples.

However, they were present in 27.2 per cent of white people before they were diagnosed with a form of throat cancer.

They were also present in 7.7 per cent of black people before diagnosis. It is currently unclear why this is.

Analysis of the data revealed white and black people with traces of the antibodies face a 98-fold and 17-fold increased risk of OPSCC, respectively.

Dr Mattias Johansson, a cancer epidemiologist at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, led the research.

He said: ‘Importantly, the proportion of throat cancers caused by HPV16 has been increasing over the past few decades, particularly in men.

‘In this study we found that antibodies can, in some cases, develop several decades prior to diagnosis of cancer.

‘If rates of throat cancer continue to rise in the future, this biomarker could provide one means to identify individuals at very high risk of the disease.’

However, Dr Johansson added: ‘There is a long way to go before this biomarker can be used in clinical practice.’

Researcher Dr Aimée Kreimer, from the US’ National Cancer Institute, said: ‘HPV16 antibodies could be a way to identify people at very high risk of cancer.’

But she added that the scientific community is ‘currently missing the critical next steps in the screening process’.

She warned that many of the results of tests in future are also likely to be false-positive because the cancer is so rare.

Antibodies are proteins the body’s immune system produces in response to an invading pathogen.

Symptoms of OPSCC include a sore throat that continues for two weeks, pain or difficulty swallowing and a lump in the neck.


Up to eight out of 10 people will be infected with HPV in their lives

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name for a group of viruses that affect your skin and the moist membranes lining your body. 

Spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex and skin-to-skin contact between genitals, it is extremely common. 

Up to eight out of 10 people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives.

There are more than 100 types of HPV. Around 30 of which can affect the genital area. Genital HPV infections are common and highly contagious.

Many people never show symptoms, as they can arise years after infection, and the majority of cases go away without treatment.

It can lead to genital warts, and is also known to cause cervical cancer by creating an abnormal tissue growth.

Annually, an average of 38,000 cases of HPV-related cancers are diagnosed in the US, 3,100 cases of cervical cancer in the UK and around 2,000 other cancers in men.

HPV can also cause cancers of the throat, neck, tongue, tonsils, vulva, vagina, penis or anus. It can take years for cancer to develop.

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