) A virus spread by oral sex may cause more cases of throat cancer in men than smoking, a finding that spurred calls for a new large-scale test of a drug used against the infection.
Researchers examined 271 throat-tumor samples collected over 20 years ending in 2004 and found that the percentage of oral cancer linked to the human papillomavirus, or HPV, surged to 72 percent from about 16 percent, according to a report released yesterday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. By 2020, the virus-linked throat tumors -- which mostly affected men -- will become more common than HPV-caused cervical cancer, the report found.
HPV is known for infecting genitals. The finding that it can spread to the throat and cause cancer may increase pressure on Merck & Co., the second-largest U.S. drugmaker, to conduct large-scale trials to see if its vaccine Gardasil, which wards off cervical cancer in women, also prevents HPV throat infections.
“The burden of cancer caused by HPV is going to shift from women to men in this decade,” Maura Gillison, an oncologist at Ohio State University and study senior author, said in a telephone interview. “What we believe is happening is that the number of sexual partners and exposure to HPV has risen over that same time period.”
Gillison said she worked with researchers at Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck several years ago to design a study in men. After Merck acquired Schering-Plough Corp. in 2009, though, the trial “was canceled,” she said.