Strategic Communication and Public Relations

Human Papilloma Viruses: Antibody Status as a Cancer Warning

No. 62c | 13/10/2020 | by Rei

Human papilloma viruses (HPV) can cause various tumor diseases, including cancer of the throat. Scientists at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) in Heidelberg are now providing evidence that antibodies against certain viral proteins could be an early warning sign of an increased risk of developing throat cancer.

© DKFZ, Professor Dr. Hanswalter Zentgraf

Most people are familiar with the human papillomavirus (HPV), especially in connection with cervical cancer. However, the viruses - especially the high-risk type HPV-16 - can also cause other types of cancer, including anal cancers and oropharyngeal carcinomas, i.e. tumors in the back third of the tongue and pharyngeal tonsils. These tumors mainly affect men.

In fact, almost 50 percent of oropharyngeal carcinomas in Germany can be traced back to HPV - and the trend is rising. Whether the tumor is caused by an HPV infection has a strong impact on survival. Scientists around Tim Waterboer, DKFZ, now wanted to know whether the detection of antibodies against HPV could be suitable for early detection. "Tumors are very rare, so that comprehensive screening would not be useful," the virologist and epidemiologist says. "However, for certain high-risk groups, such early detection could be useful". HPV-associated oropharyngeal carcinomas can often be successfully treated. "However, in larger tumors, treatment can lead to speech and swallowing problems as well as other massive limitations in quality of life," says Waterboer.

In collaboration with Australian scientists, the DKFZ researchers analyzed blood samples from a total of 617 men who participated in a prospective study on anal carcinoma. In the process, they searched not only for antibodies against the envelope protein of the virus, but also for those directed against proteins that are produced early in the reproduction cycle of HPV. These can act as oncoproteins, i.e. they can promote cancer. "It is known that most people with HPV-associated oropharyngeal carcinomas have more of these antibodies against early viral proteins in their blood than people who are infected but do not develop tumors," Waterboer explains.

Of the 617 study participants, almost half had antibodies against the HPV envelope protein. This is not surprising at first, because most people experience HPV infection at some point in their lives - often without realizing it. In 13 of the men, the scientists also detected antibodies against the early proteins. One man who had high antibody levels against four of the early proteins was particularly noticeable. In two other subjects, the antibodies against two of the early proteins were elevated.

The scientists then contacted the affected men to examine them for possible oropharyngeal carcinomas. It turned out that the man with a particularly conspicuous antibody status had already died as a result of such a tumor. "In addition, one of the men with antibodies against two early proteins was diagnosed with oropharyngeal carcinoma, which had not yet caused any symptoms and was easily treatable," says Waterboer. In the remaining conspicuous test subjects, there was no evidence of a tumor. However, they will be closely examined in the future.

"As far as we know, this is the first prospective study that shows an association between antibody status and an increased risk of oropharyngeal carcinoma in symptom-free study participants," says Waterboer. The scientist also assumes that the higher the antibody level against early proteins and the more early proteins are recognized by the immune system, the greater the risk. However, further studies with a larger number of test persons are necessary for definitive proof.

"We hope that our results will one day help to develop screening for early detection of oropharyngeal carcinoma in high-risk groups," says Waterboer. In this context, he also emphasizes the importance of HPV vaccination for both sexes. "Preventing HPV infection can not only protect against cervical cancer, but also against other HPV-associated tumors".

Tim Waterboer, Nicole Brenner, Richard Gallagher, Richard John Hillman, Fengyi Jin, Andrew Grulich, Isobel Mary Poynten: Early Detection of Human Papillomavirus–Driven Oropharyngeal Cancer Using Serology From the Study of Prevention of Anal Cancer.
Jama Oncology 2020, DOI:10.1001/jamaoncol.2020.4527

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institution in Germany. More than 1,300 scientists at the DKFZ investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and search for new strategies to prevent people from developing cancer. They are developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to all questions on cancer.

Jointly with partners from the university hospitals, the DKFZ operates the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) in Heidelberg and Dresden, and the Hopp Children's Tumour Center KiTZ in Heidelberg. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of the six German Centers for Health Research, the DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partner locations. NCT and DKTK sites combine excellent university medicine with the high-profile research of the DKFZ. They contribute to the endeavor of transferring promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improving the chances of cancer patients.

The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.

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