Researchers have found that two out of three “healthy” American adults are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV). That is the bad news. The good news is that most do not have the kinds of HPV that are know to cause some cancers and genital warts.
A new study, conducted at the New York University Langone Medical Center, looked at detailed genetic analysis of tissue DNA from 103 men and women. They found 69 percent had at least one strain of HPV, but only four had the more dangerous types.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is actually a group of related viruses. There are 109 strains of HPV. About 40 of them are genital HPVs Of those, 14 HPV types have a high risk of leading to cervical cancer, with two genotypes responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. (HPV vaccines only protect against those two genotypes and two others.)
The other types of HPV are viral strains that researchers believe are harmless and can be dormant in the body for years. Their overwhelming presence, however, is believed to help keep other strains in check as part of the body’s natural defenses. HPV, which is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, is the most common sexually transmitted disease. According to NYU, it is so common that experts estimate nearly all U.S. men and women contract at least one strain of it at some point in their lives.
The study researchers spent two years analyzed publicly available data in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Microbiome Project. The NIH Project, which is pulling together information on microorganisms’ effects on human health, had comprehensive DNA analyses assembled. Using a technique called shotgun sequencing, the decoding process sorted through 748 tissue swabs of genetic material from NIH project participants’ skin, mouth, vagina, gut and other organs. The tissue samples were collected from healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 80.
The NYU research team refined their analysis of the NIH data to study only the HPV strains. The complicated process used special bioinformatics software developed at Langone and compared their analysis with what other national databases had on HPV.
While two out of three have HPV, the research found that 61 percent of the American adults in the study had HPV infections in their skin and that skin samples had the most varieties of HPV. Other areas with infections were the vagina (41 percent), the mount (30 percent) and the guy (17 percent). An additional finding was that, of those with HPV, 59 percent had it in only one organ.
Langone research scientist and lead investigator Yingfei Ma, PhD, acknowledged the HPV they found in reportedly “healthy” people was far more vast and complex than had been previously thought. As Ma noted, further research in HPV is needed to ascertain “how the various non-cancer-causing HPV genotypes interact with the cervical cancer-causing strains.” They also need to study what causes those strains, which are the genotypes 16 and 18, to trigger cancer.
Study investigator, Dr. Zhiheng Pei, a pathologist and NYU associate professor, cautions that American adults should not be overly concerned about the study’s HPV findings that two out of three have some strain of the virus in their system. However, he did note that , getting vaccinated against the cancer-causing types 16 and 18 is still a good idea. In the interim, most needs to be learned about the various types of HPV and whether any play a role in other cancers, according to Dr. Ma. The research team also plans to develop better diagnostic tests that will test for all the known types of HPV.
By Dyanne Weiss
NYU Langone Medical Center