Why some HPV infections go away and others become cancer

Posted: March 24, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Immune system response isn't as crucial as activity of the infected cells themselves

DURHAM, N.C. -- For people infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV), the likelihood of clearing the infection and avoiding HPV-related cancer may depend less on the body's disease-fighting arsenal than has been generally assumed.

A new study finds that the body's ability to defeat the virus may be largely due to unpredictable division patterns in HPV-infected stem cells, rather than the strength of the person's immune response.

If the mathematical model behind the findings holds up, it could point to ways of tweaking the way infected cells divide in order to make HPV infections go away faster and hence lower the risk of developing cancer, said co-author Marc Ryser of Duke University.

The results appear online in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

More than six million people in the U.S. become infected with HPV every year. Most people clear the virus on their own in one to two years with little or no symptoms. But in some people the infection persists. The longer HPV persists the more likely it is to lead to cancer, including cancers of the cervix, penis, anus, mouth and throat.

To better understand why some HPV infections go away and others progress, Duke mathematicians Marc Ryser and Rick Durrett developed a model of HPV infection at the level of the infected tissue.

HPV spreads through intimate skin-to-skin contact during sex with an infected person, and takes advantage of the tissue's natural internal repair system to reproduce and spread.

The invading virus breaks through the layers of cells that line the cervix and other tissues and infects the stem cells in the innermost layer, called the basal layer.

Usually, when an infected stem cell divides into two, one of the new cells stays in the basal layer and the other cell is pushed outward into the upper layers where it dies and is sloughed off, releasing virus particles that can then infect another person.

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Why some HPV infections go away and others become cancer

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