New Horizons in Science

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Updating the HPV story: A cancer’s shifting “behavioral genomics”

Ed Uthman
Sunday, October 19, 2014 -
4:30pm to 5:30pm

A decade ago, few doctors suspected that most head and neck cancers were caused by a virus—human papillomavirus or HPV, the same agent implicated in most cervical cancer. Maura Gillison, the young oncologist who brought the connection to light, has spent her career chasing one of the fastest-changing cancers on the planet. 

Through a combination of epidemiology and molecular sleuthing, she showed that the head and neck cancer oncologists were treating in 2000 was not the cancer they were treating 16 years earlier. The incidence of one kind of cancer, associated with tobacco use, had dropped by half, while HPV-positive cancers had more than doubled. Men now bear a heavier burden of HPV illness than do women, and that burden is growing. To devise better treatment and public health campaigns, Gillison is now studying the links between behavior and the genomics of these cancers and looking at the unusual ways the virus interacts with the host cell genome.


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