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The story of HPV

Since its discovery in the early 20th century, human papillomavirus, or HPV, has been studied extensively by scientists worldwide. However, it was not until the late 1990s that researchers identified HPV as a leading cause of cervical cancer. Since then, we have made much progress in understanding this virus and how it can affect women’s health. This blog post will explore the story of HPV, from its origins to its links to cervical cancer. We will also unpack some of the latest and most exciting developments in our ongoing fight against this disease.

The discovery of HPV and its link to cervical cancer

Understanding the pathology of a disease is critical for its prevention and treatment; a clear-cut example of this is the journey of cervical cancer treatment. Despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) describing Cervical Cancer as the “fourth most common cancer in women," researchers struggled for decades to unravel the mystery behind its cause. This mystery continued to shroud cervical cancer until a significant breakthrough in the 1980s which led to the discovery of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Initially the research found that the virus caused benign skin warts and various pre-cancerous lesions on the cervix. However, ongoing studies show that HPV is the cause of more than "99% of cases of cervical cancer in women," according to the WHO.

The Cervical Cancer Connection

Although the story of HPV officially started in the late 1800s, it wasn't until almost 70 years later that Dr Harald Zur Hausen connected HPV and cervical cancer. After researchers began to notice that cervical cancer was prevalent in "women who started having sex at a younger age or had multiple sexual partners," Hausen decided to investigate the link. This research led him to hypothesise that certain types of HPV were responsible for most cases of cervical cancer and he set out to prove his theory.

HPV Variations

Not only was Hausen able to make a connection, he also uncovered variations of the HPV virus, including HPV-16 (which accounted for 35-61% of cancer samples) and HPV-18 (which accounted for 15-25%) according to The National Library of Medicine. These forms of HPV can cause changes in the way our body expresses genes. This altered gene expression can lead to precancerous cells forming in the body and eventually becoming cancerous.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, convincing his peers that his discovery had merit was no easy feat. There was a mountain to climb to prove the theory true. An article published by Cancer Research UK stated, "between 1987 to 1995, Professor Karen Vousden, our former chief scientist, led the HPV group at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Oxford. Her work pinpointed the specific viral molecules required by HPV-16 to enable cells to reproduce and cause cancer continually."

The HPV-vaccine

Uncovering the link between HPV and cervical cancer was key to unlocking the recipe for cervical cancer prevention. It also paved the way for the development of the HPV vaccine.

In 2008, the UK government first allowed HPV vaccination for girls aged 11-13 as part of a school-based program. In recent years, the UK government has extended this offering to boys. Additionally, men who have sex with men, women under the age of 25 and trans and non-binary people are eligible to receive the HPV vaccine at clinics.

Whilst the vaccine was an integral step, a secondary part of prevention is accurate screening. At GeneFirst, we are proud to participate in preventing cervical cancer and have worked hard to develop exact screening technology. We have designed the GeneFirst Papilloplex® High-Risk HPV test to stratify disease risk better and track how much it progresses by targeting 14 high-risk HPV genotypes.  The HPV screening test test, created by GeneFirst, helps develop strategies to prevent and manage cervical cancer based on a patient's genotype-specific HPV infection.

The future of HPV research and treatment

As medical research develops, the future of documenting and treating HPV is looking increasingly positive. As well as providing advances in diagnosis for at-risk patients, work to create targeted HPV vaccines will pave the way for reducing infection rates and associated cancers. Recent years have also seen an increase in public awareness.

The virus still presents a significant global health challenge despite increased awareness. According to the CDC, “there were 43 million HPV infections in 2018, many in their late teens and early 20s.”  It also remains the most sexually transmitted disease in the US, suggesting we must do more to conquer this disease worldwide.

Although there is still much to learn about HPV and how best to treat it, the treatments available today have made great strides in fighting this disease. With a better understanding of the different types of HPV and how they work, scientists are hopeful that we will develop even more effective treatments. In the meantime, women can take steps to reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer by getting vaccinated against HPV and having regular Pap smears.

Get in touch with us if you would like to learn more.

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