(CNN) — Scientists may be able to predict throat cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) more than 10 years before patients get diagnosed, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
Using a blood test that is still in the research stage, experts were able to detect blood markers indicating early signs of the disease.
Actor Michael Douglas recently made headlines when The Guardian reported he said his throat cancer may have been caused in part by HPV transmitted through oral sex. Douglas later said he simply was stating that oral sex can lead to cancer.
HPV: What you need to know
HPV is the most common type of sexually transmitted virus in the United States and is passed on through sexual contact — genital or oral. There are more than 40 types of HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nearly all sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV during their lifetime.
Most infections are fought off by the immune system and don’t lead to any health problems. But some people go on to develop cancer from the virus. Doctors aren’t sure why.
Most people associate HPV with cervical cancer because virtually all of these cancers are caused by this virus. But HPV can also trigger oropharyngeal or throat cancer, especially in men. By 2020, it is estimated HPV will cause more throat cancers than cervical cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Researchers looked at the results of blood tests taken from 135 throat cancer patients who were part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study.
About a third of the throat cancer patients were found to have HPV antibodies in their blood a full decade before doctors detected any outward signs of the disease. Our immune systems make antibodies to fight infections. Globally, about a third of throat cancers are said to be HPV-related, according to the study.
The researchers say they are extremely encouraged by the study findings.
“Until now, there were no accurate markers for early detection of this cancer,” said study author Paul Brennan with the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France.
Though the test is likely years away from being available at the doctor’s office, it has other scientists – not related to the study – intrigued.
“Perhaps these types of patients could be under closer surveillance, so this potentially allows for more regular screening, early detection, earlier diagnosis and earlier intervention,” says Dr. Ellie Maghami, chief of the Division of Head and Neck Surgery at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California.
Further studies need to be done, Maghami says, perhaps in the United States where the rate of HPV-related throat cancers are about twice as high as in Europe.
If caught early, about 90% of HPV-related throat cancers can be treated effectively or cured, according to Maghami. Because the blood test used in this new study is still in development, she suggests education may be one of the best weapon for prevention and early detection of this cancer. People at high risk are those who engage in sex at a young age, have multiple partners and are liberal in their sexual practices. Maghami encourages parents to talk to their children about these risks.
There are currently two vaccines available to help prevent HPV. The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend both boys and girls get their shots between the ages of 11 and 12. Doctors say the vaccine is most effective if given before a child becomes sexually active.