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When a virus causes cancer, surgical robot can help

Fri, May 3, 2013

Oral Cancer News

Author: James Ritchie

Dr. Keith Wilson finds robotic surgery to be a good approach for removing tumors growing deep in the throat, as I recently reported. As it turns out, such tumors are often part of an alarming trend. They’re often caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, also known as HPV.

In decades gone by, oral cancer was almost always associated with tobacco and alcohol use. It was typically a disease of old men. No more. Many of Wilson’s patients are nonsmokers and very light drinkers.

“I can’t tell you how surprised people get,” said Wilson, who is chief of staff at University of Cincinnati Medical Center. “We’re seeing younger, more affluent and more highly educated patients.”

High-risk HPVs cause virtually all cervical cancers. They have in recent years been implicated in oropharyngeal cancers. The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat, including the soft palate, the base of the tongue and the tonsils.

About 63 percent of oropharyngeal cancers, or 11,000 cases per year, are associated with HPV infection, according to the American Dental Association. They’re frequently under age 50.

Fortunately for such patients, HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers have a better prognosis than those with other causes. Wilson said that cure rates can approach 90 percent.

The da Vinci surgical robot is an effective tool for removing them, he said, because its long, joined arms can go where a surgeon’s hands can’t. But the machines, made by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Intuitive Surgical Inc., are gaining some criticism. The robotic surgery system is facing safety questions from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after a string of complaints across the country – as many as 500 since January 2012.

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