Australian researchers are one step closer to developing a treatment for cancers of the head and neck associated with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).
Researchers from Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital are advancing to human trials of a revolutionary therapy which combines a newly-developed HPV vaccine with immunotherapy to treat HPV cancers. HPV cancers of the head, neck, throat and tongue are currently incurable and there’s been an unprecedented rise in the incidence of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer (OPC).
Cases have increased by 225 per cent in the US since the 1980s and it’s also a growing problem in Australia.
“OPC cancer of the tonsil and base of tongue is now regarded as the most common head and neck cancer in Queensland,” Professor Sandro Porceddu, Director of Radiation Oncology Research at PAH, said in a statement.
OPC occurs when malignant cancer cells form in the tissue of the oropharynx, with smoking and HPV increasing the risk. HPV is a common and highly contagious sexually transmitted infection which is responsible for 60 per cent of all OPC cancers in Australia. It’s also associated with cancer of the anus, vagina, cervix, vulva and penis.
HPV spreads when there’s sexual contact between a HPV-infected person and someone who isn’t infected. Use of condoms during intercourse can prevent HPV from spreading, while vaccination can protect against some types of HPV. OPC on the other hand accounts for 1,500 Australian deaths annually and 500 are directly related to the HPV.
The new trial involves 12 patients with incurable HPV-associated throat cancer and combines a vaccine that teaches the body’s own immune cells to target cancer. Meanwhile, an immunotherapy drug enhances the body’s immune system.
Researchers have successfully conducted the first human trial testing of the new HPV vaccine to confirm its safety. The next step is to test the combination of the vaccine with the immunotherapy drug.
“The vaccine stimulates and teaches the body’s own T-cells to attack those cancer cells with human papilloma virus on the cell surface. It is similar to how the body manages infections,” Porceddu said. “The second part of the process is immunotherapy because cancer cells suppress the immune system allowing cancer to grow.
“This immunotherapy drug takes the ‘brakes off the immune system’ enhancing the body’s ability to attack the cancer.”
Cases of HPV-associated OPC are expected to increase dramatically over the next decade, which researchers believe represents “an important unmet clinical need that can be eased with trials such as this”.
The trial has also been described as a “game-changer” and if successful, could change the way OPC and other cancers are treated.
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