January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, so over the next few weeks the Women’s Health Research Institute will be posting a series of blogs related to this important topic in women’s health.

Did you know that that over 90% of cases of cervical cancer in the United States are caused by human papilloma virus (HPV) infection [1]? Below, we will take a closer look at the biology behind HPV associated cervical cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection which is spread by vaginal, anal, or oral sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control, HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will become infected at some point in their lives. Over 90% of people who become infected with HPV do not have any symptoms and the infection naturally resolves within 2 years [2]. However, certain strains of HPV can cause genital warts, while other highrisk strains such as HPV and are associated with cervical, anal, and oral cancer.

How does HPV cause cancer?

HPV infects epithelial cells which serve as a barrier between us and the environment. Sexualcontact introduces HPV to epithelial cells which line the vagina, cervix, anus, penis, or mouth. High-risk strains of HPV produce viral proteins which change the rate at which our cells grow and divide. Most of the time, our immune system can detect and destroy infected cells. However, in some cases HPV infected cells avoid detection and continue to grow uncontrollably. This leads to precancerous growths, and ultimately cancer.

How is HPV detected?

Currently, there are only methods to detect cervical HPV infection. Cells are collected from the cervix, similar to a pap smear, and tested for the DNA of high-risk HPV strains.

Can HPV infection be prevented?

As previously mentioned, HPV is transmitted through sexual contact. Limiting the number of sexual partners and practicing safe sex can reduce your risk of contracting HPV. There are currently three FDA approved vaccines which can prevent high-risk HPV infection, but they cannot treat any current HPV infections. HPV vaccines are recommended for men and women under the age of 26, who did not receive the vaccine as a child or teen. 

For additional information on HPV and HPV-associated cervical cancer, consider checking out the following resources:

  1. Center for Disease Control
  2. Ho et al. N Engl J Med 1998;338(7);423-8

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