Head & Neck Cancer

Human Papilloma Virus Induced Head and Neck Cancer

Over the last 5-10 years it has become apparent that a significant number of patients developing throat cancer have done so as a consequence of chronic infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV).

This virus is extremely common and most of us have been exposed to it during our lifetimes. It is passed by person-to-person contact. In most individuals HPV causes a transient infection, which is of no long-term consequence. However in some individuals for reasons, which are poorly understood, human papilloma virus forms a chronic infection and appears to pre-dispose to squamous cell carcinomas of the mouth and throat particularly the tonsils and the base of the tongue.

Human papilloma virus related to head and neck cancer tends to affect younger patients and it is not associated with the more traditional risk factors for head and neck cancer such as smoking and alcohol use.  One fascinating observation is that patients who have HPV-related head and neck cancers appear to have higher cure rates (sometimes greater than 90%) than cancers induced by smoking. Members of the public and general practitioners should be aware of this new disease entity, which has a tendency to affect young, fit adult patients. It typically presents with a lump in the neck or sore throat. Professor Nutting has been at the forefront of head and neck cancer research and will arrange for tumour samples to be tested for HPV as appropriate. Given the very high anticipated cure rates for patients with HPV-related cancer and the younger age at diagnosis it is particularly important for these individuals to receive the very best form of radiotherapy and to maximise their chances of cure and minimize long-term side effects and adverse effects on quality of life.

With the current UK program of vaccinating young girls against HPV (to prevent them getting cervix cancer), hopefully this disease will be eradicated  over the course of the next generation, at least in women.

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