New HPV treatment aims to wipe out virus before it becomes life threatening

Vaccine clears tissue that already have HPV

A new treatment is showing promise for people infected with HPV, the human papillomavirus. Until now, nothing was available to clear the infection from the body. Now, researchers say they're seeing success in phase two trials of a new vaccine that helps the body rid itself of the virus.

Cancer was the last thing on Sandy Lalonde's mind in her early 30s. However, months of irregular periods convinced her to see her doctor for testing.

"She said, 'We have bad news. Your high-risk HPV test came back positive and we're pretty sure you have cervical cancer,'" Lalonde said.

The cancer was stage 2-A and had spread. Lalonde needed eight rounds of chemo and 25 rounds of external radiation to treat it. Dr. Diane Harper is studying a new therapy that she hopes will wipe out cervical cancer by eliminating the HPV virus that can cause it.

"Unlike chlamydia or gonorrhea, where you can take an antibiotic and get cured, we don't have anything that will get rid of HPV," Harper said.

Researchers enrolled 200 women with precancerous cervical lesions and gave them three injections one week apart. The therapy was a protein that triggered an immune response.

"It activates the immune system to go in and find the cells that are infected with HPV, or the cells that have started to change because of HPV, and attack them," Harper said.

At the end of six months, between 25% and 33% of the participants were cleared of lesions and HPV.

"The ability to clear the body of HPV is amazing, because just because they don't have cancer from it doesn't mean they don't have a whole host of other complications," Harper said.

Harper noted it's important to know that the vaccine researchers are testing is different from Gardasil, the vaccine given to preteens to prevent HPV.

The vaccine that is being tested clears tissue that already have HPV. 

Additional trials are needed before this new vaccine could be considered by the Food and Drug Administration for approval.  

Background

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It is usually harmless and goes away by itself, but some types can lead to cancer or genital warts.

There's no cure for HPV, but there's a lot you can do to keep HPV from having a negative impact on your health. There are vaccines that can help protect you from ever getting certain types of HPV. Genital warts can be removed by your nurse or doctor. High-risk HPV can usually be easily treated before it turns into cancer, which is why regular Pap/HPV tests are so important.

While condoms and dental dams don't offer complete protection, they can help lower your chances of getting HPV.

Cancers

High-risk HPV is more likely to cause cancer. For most people, the immune system is able to get rid of this type of infection. But some people develop a lasting infection. Over many years, the infection transforms normal cells into precancerous lesions or cancer.  HPV infection causes nearly all cervical cancers. Of the cervical cancers related to HPV, about 70% are caused by 2 types: HPV-16 or HPV-18. Smoking may increase the risk of cervical cancer for women who have HPV. Although almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, it is important to remember that most genital HPV infections will not cause cancer. Next is oral cancer. HPV can cause cancer of the mouth and tongue. It can also cause cancer of the oropharynx. This is the middle part of the throat, from the tonsils to the tip of the voice box. These HPV-related cancers are increasing in men and women. Changes in sexual behavior, including an increase in oral sex, may be contributing to the increase. Also, HPV is associated with less common cancers, including anal cancer, vulvar and vaginal cancers in women, and penile cancer in men.

New research

Dr. Diane Harper, MPH, MS, senior associate director, MICHR, and professor of family medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, talked about next steps for the new therapy: "The next steps for this is to figure out do we want to tweak the molecule to see if we can get a higher coverage rate? Or do we combine this with something else to be able to get a better cure, or potentially, such as in head and neck cancer, can we combine this with a chemotherapeutic agent in people who already have cancer to help their cure rates become even better."

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