It's long been clear that human papillomavirus, or HPV, increases one's risk of developing cervical or some genital cancers. But data collected and analyzed in recent years is suggesting that the virus may also be to blame for a striking rise in cancers of the head and neck — a connection that's raising new questions for scientists and doctors about how best to prevent HPV, and how best to treat the cancers that arise from infection.
In a comprehensive piece at Nature, Megan Scudellari takes a close look at the connection, and the research that informed it. Since around 2005, studies have indicated that HPV is behind a majority of head and neck cancers — illnesses whose rates are rising rapidly and striking otherwise healthy adults without a history of typical risk factors like excessive drinking or smoking. But medical practitioners are also noticing that these HPV-positive cancer patients tend to recover more readily than those without HPV, yielding uncertainties about whether they should receive the same aggressive treatment. And given that two vaccines already exist to protect against HPV, some experts are now asking whether those vaccines should be administered to a broader population.