Author: Matthew Herper
Oncologist Maura Gillison was looking for patients with tonsil cancer for a clinical study several years ago. The first enlisted was a malpractice lawyer, followed by a doctor, then a scientist. She joked to a colleague that all she needed was a rear admiral. In walked a member of the military brass. All were in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
People in their prime didn’t used to get throat tumors. Head-and-neck cancer, as doctors call it, was a disease of older problem drinkers who also chain-smoked (more men than women). Years of exposure to scotch and Lucky Strikes would damage the DNA of cells lining the throat, leading to cancer.
But Gillison, 44, a professor at Ohio State University, was among the first researchers to make a startling realization: The old cigarettes-and-alcohol form of the disease was being eclipsed by a new form, caused by the same human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer. The tumors grow in the tonsils or in the tissue that remains after tonsillectomy. The only good news is that the prognosis for these patients is better than for the old disease.
Gillison and researchers at the National Cancer Institute estimate that 4,000 people, 75% of them men, develop this new form of throat cancer annually. That’s only a tenth of head-and-neck cases, but it’s half as many people as get cervical cancer in the U.S. More worrisome, Gillison’s work shows HPV tonsil cancer is increasing at a rate of 5% a year, unusual growth for a cancer diagnosis, even though throat infection with the HPV strain that causes it is exceedingly rare. Any spread of the virus could make the number of cases increase dramatically. “I’m very worried,” says Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. Skeptics say the association is not proven, and that too much of the work comes from just Gillison.
Both Gillison and Brawley think a solution may exist: Vaccinate all boys, starting as early as age 9, with Merck’s HPV vaccine, Gardasil, now heavily promoted for cervical cancer. Gardasil, however, is already the source of all sorts of controversy. Antivaccine groups oppose it because of its high costs ($360 for three shots) and alleged side effects; the FDA says the vaccine is safe. GlaxoSmithkline is developing its own HPV vaccine.
Gillison spent three years trying to draw Merck’s attention to HPV tonsil cancer. Finally, she is working with Merck to design a study to see if Gardasil can affect HPV infection in the throat. Merck admits studying the problem is “challenging” but says the potential is big.
Interested in cancer-causing viruses, Gillison started work on the HPV problem in 1996 when she was finishing her Ph.D. and oncology training at Johns Hopkins University. She signed up with a group studying HPV and cervical cancer. But she switched to studying throat cancer patients after finding a few research papers reporting cases in which tumors had the DNA of the HPV virus inside them.
She was shocked to find a substantial number of throat tumors had the HPV type. She also noticed something dramatic when she organized HPV patients by the year they were born. Starting with patients born in 1935, there had been an increase in the number of cases every single year.
Researchers realized that a big change in sexual behavior in the 1950s and 1960s–mainly, that people had more sexual partners–had allowed a virus that had been rare to spread throughout the population. Some researchers say gay men and women seem underrepresented, possibly because they catch the virus elsewhere in the body and develop immunity.
What appears to happen is that one strain of the HPV virus, which is transmitted largely through oral sex, but also by French kissing or even just sharing a water glass, suppresses two anticancer genes.
HPV tonsil cancer is not as lethal as traditional throat cancers, but the treatment is still brutal. Martin Duffy, a 69-year-old Boston economist and consultant who doesn’t smoke and has run 40 Boston marathons, dropped 30 pounds to 120 pounds while being treated with Erbitux and radiation. He was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in February and is slowly recovering.
The death rate in head-and-neck cancer has been dropping, but doctors are still discouraged: It turns out the less threatening virus was responsible for many of those cancers. James Rocco, a head-and-neck surgeon at the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary, says, “We’re probably doing no better than we were 30 years ago.”