Human papillomavirus infection (HPV) is the most common type of sexually transmitted infection in the United States, wherein 3,500 women and 16,200 men are diagnosed each year. Recently, Mayo Clinic researchers have found a new, and short treatment for patients with HPV-associated oropharynx cancer that promises excellent disease control and fewer side-effects than the standard treatment.

New, Shorter Treatment for HPV-Associated Oral Cancer Promises Excellent Disease Control, Fewer Side-Effects
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Oral Carcinoma Cuniculatum (Photo by Mandana Donoghue)

What is HPV-Associated Oropharyngeal Cancer?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40 out of 100 types of HPV can be transmitted through direct sexual contact either to genital areas or to the mouth and throat.

A lot of people get exposed to oral HPV, which is transmitted via oral sex, throughout their lives. Around 10% of men and 3.6% of women have oral HPV and are more common with older age, especially in smokers or drinkers. Usually, people can clear HPV within one or two years. However, some HPV infections may persist for more years.

HPV-associated oral cancer affects the mouth and throat and the parts of the oropharynx, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. In the US, it is estimated that 70% of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV.

Patients infected with HPV usually take years before cancer will develop. However, it remains unclear whether HPV alone can cause cancer or other factors, such as smoking or chewing tobacco, may have played a part. On the other hand, HPV is not a known cause for other head and neck cancers, like those in the larynx, lip, mouth, and salivary glands.

Symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer include chronic sore throat, earaches, hoarseness, swollen lymph nodes, unexplained weight loss, and painful sensation when swallowing. According to National Cancer Institute, traditional treatment for this type of cancer often involve open surgery and followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy. But Mayo Clinic researchers have found a new, short treatment for HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer.

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Mayo Clinic Treatment for HPV-Associated Oropharyngeal Cancer

Newswise reported that Mayo Clinic's new treatment uses minimally invasive surgery and half of the standard radiation therapy used in standard medicine. Researchers said that this novel treatment lasts for about two weeks instead of the traditional six weeks.

They presented their findings at the American Society for Radiation Oncology's Annual Meeting last week on October 20, 2021. Mayo Clinic radiation oncologist Dr. Daniel J. Ma, one of the authors of the study, said that while the standard treatment for HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer leads to high cure rates, it also results in many short-term and long-term side-effects, such as dry mouth, problems swallowing, jawbone problems, and neck stiffness.

He noted that these side-effects are mostly due to the high amount of radiation used for the treatment. So their team decided to develop a treatment with less invasive surgery and used half radiation dose. Their patients showed excellent disease control and lower toxicity using the new treatment, suggesting a shorter course of treatment than standard care.

The team is now conducting further studies to see whether it is possible to combine lower doses of radiation with other treatment strategies to reduce toxicity or side effects further.

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