Researchers link human papillomavirus (HPV) to common skin cancer

HANOVER, NH Human papillomavirus (HPV) may be a risk factor in developing squamous cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer, according to research led by Dartmouth Medical School. The study, published in the March 15 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, used new technology to detect antibodies from a strain of HPV on skin cancer samples.

"We found a virus that may be a risk factor for skin cancer," said lead investigator Dr. Margaret Karagas, of Dartmouth Medical School's Norris Cotton Cancer Center. "Although sun exposure and sensitivity to sun are still the main culprits in skin cancer, our findings suggest skin types of HPV also may play a role in the development of squamous cell carcinomas."

Previous research has found a relationship between cancer of the cervix and "alpha" or mucosal types of HPV. Karagas and her team focused their research on the skin types or "beta" HPVs. The research team searched for beta HPV antibodies in plasma samples from 252 patients with squamous cell carcinoma, 525 patients with basal cell carcinomas and 461 control subjects.

Using multiplex serology, a new method based on fluorescent bead technology that detects viral antibodies, the authors detected HPV antibodies in patients diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma more frequently than in the control subjects. The researchers did not detect a presence of HPV in the patients with basal cell carcinomas more frequently than controls.

"This makes sense because we have known that patients who are taking immunosuppressive drugs, such as organ transplant recipients have a tendency to develop squamous cell skin cancers, and that their tumors frequently contain these beta type HPVs," said Karagas.

In addition to searching for HPV antibodies in the samples, the researchers conducted one-on-one interviews with the study participants to gage other skin cancer factors that could play a role in the study's results. Participants were asked about lifestyle habits, including whether they smoked or drank, medical and family history, and their usual level of sun exposure and their skin's sensitivity to sun. Taking all these other factors into account, the researchers still found an association between HPV and squamous skin cancer.

"While further study is needed, a potential role of viruses in skin cancer occurrence could represent a new line of investigation for the detection and treatment of squamous cell skin cancer," said Karagas. The authors note that although they identified an association between HPV antibodies and squamous cell carcinoma risk, more studies must be done to establish a direct causal link.

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This research was done in collaboration with the New Hampshire Dermatologic Society and funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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