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The Ultimate Controversy: Will HPV Go Away on Its Own?

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

One of the reasons that the question still persists regarding whether or not HPV goes away on its own is that the answer is both yes, and no. Each of these answers depends upon numerous factors including some understanding of the medical aspects of virus.

The body is truly incredible when one stops to think of all the functions it carries out at any given moment, all acting in conjunction with one another. It would be wrong to simply state that in the majority of cases the body’s immune system will rid itself of the virus. And yet many doctors and nurses do say this, usually as the result of misunderstanding the virus themselves.

When it comes to the immune system, there is a general lack of knowledge regarding the body’s tumor suppressor proteins.

It would actually be more correct to say that the virus never truly leaves.

HPV, which is short for human papillomavirus, was actually discovered as the cause of cervical cancer in 1983 by Professor Harald zur Hausen, MD. Dr. zur Hausen had been studying HPV, which is named in sequence of its finding (come to be known as strain) and took quite a number of years before he discovered the first HPV strains associated with cancer.

It was during 1983 that his research lead to the discovery of HPV16, which was found to be present in 50 percent of the cervical cancer cells which he was studying. A year later, he discovered HPV18 which was shown to exist within yet another 20 percent of these cancer specimens.

Today, these two HPV strains alone, 16 and 18, are known to be responsible for a total of 70 percent of all cervical cancers. HPV16 and HPV18 are also known to be responsible for 90 percent and more of anal cancers.

It now becomes important to understand how the body responds when introduced to the HPV virus. The tumor suppressor proteins contained by the body are referred to as p53 and pRb. p53 is the most commonly mutated tumor suppressor protein involved in cancer.

Such is the case with cancers involving HPV as well. These tumor suppressor proteins were only discovered in the late 1970’s, a few short years before the discovery of HPV16.

It is important for the purposes of this article to make the distinction between low risk and high risk HPV. Low risk strains of HPV (like 6 and 11) cause genital warts, and other low risk strains of HPV cause the warts typically found on the hands. These are not the strains of HPV we are discussing here.

It is the high risk strains of HPV which can go on to result in precancerous and cancerous lesions and these are the ones which we speak of here. There are approximately 14 high risk strains of HPV known to potentially result in cancer with HPV16 and HPV18 being the most common.

Research has shown that the majority of individuals positive for high risk HPV infection will not remain so at 24 months. However, this would depend largely on the degree of abnormality present within the cells.

In the case of low risk infection, these are the ones which typically will become dormant within 24 months. It is for this reason that many physicians will choose the wait and watch method before performing any more invasive types of procedures.

It is important for women to understand that there two different tests of importance here: the Pap test, and the HPV test. In more cases than not, women will need to ask for the HPV test as many physicians will not perform the HPV test unless the Pap is positive.

Research has shown that a Pap test can be negative yet the patient still be positive for HPV. So, despite current FDA rulings which do not allow HPV tests until 30 years of age and older, ask your doctor to perform the test anyway. It could save your life.

The Pap test reveals abnormalities within the cells themselves, while the HPV test actually looks for the HPV DNA itself within your cells.

Abnormal cells (serious) can be determined based on the results of the Pap smear and histology and may often be treated immediately to prevent further progression to a more abnormal (more serious) condition such as invasive cancer.

This is why it is important for women to follow-up when it comes to getting their Pap tests and now, requesting HPV testing as well.

If you are one of these individuals whose infection has resolved after 24 months, it has done just that -- resolved. It has not vanished, disappeared or otherwise been stricken permanently from your body, as it has already been incorporated into your own cell DNA.

HPV contains tumor suppressors within its own arsenal referred to as E6 and E7. These function to deactivate p53 and disable pRB. It is E6 and E7 which enables the virus to enter your own cells, utilize them to replicate (duplicate themselves) indefinitely, which is essentially the definition of cancer - the uncontrolled replication of cells.

In my next article, I will describe the uncontrolled replication of HPV, in addition to various risk factors and ones own immune system as they contribute to recurrent HPV infections.

This was the first part of a two-part article.


Table of contents : Nature Reviews Cancer Focus on p53 — 30 years on." Nature Publishing Group : science journals, jobs, and information. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.

Arnold. "Primary information of p53 gene." Bioinformatics Organization - Bioinformatics.Org. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.

"New role found for cancer protein p53." Science Daily: News & Articles in Science, Health, Environment & Technology. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2012. Web 6. Feb. 2012.

“A Virus in the Limelight - Papilloma and the Nobel Prize”, Kristen Kerksiek, Infection Research: A Virus in the Limelight - Papilloma and the Nobel Prize." Infection Research: home. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.

Reviewed February 7, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment2 Comments

Actually statistics from the CDC have shown at 80% of individuals will have an HPV infection at some time in their lifetime until about March of last year. At that time, research was released by Dr. Anna Giuliano of Moffit Cancer Center showing that 50% of South and North American males were more than likely infected with HPV. Suddenly the CDC changed its statistics. This research was confined to males but was the only coinciding event which after years of using 80% the CDC up and changed its numbers.
Despite writing to them and asking for them to clarify this (they get their info from a third party) I have yet to receive an answer.
I am more likely to believe the numbers previously used of 80% especially since there are so many cases which are never reported as there is no dysplasia reporting center as there is with cancer.
If you think of HPV DNA like an ingredient in a cake, once you ad it in (equivalent to the HPV DNA incorporating itself into our own cells, you can't just separate it out. So even though you cannot see it there is no way for the DNA to disassemble itself. As I've mentioned when cells become abnormal, the bodies TSP (tumor suppressor proteins) are programmed to instruct the cell to basically commit suicide to prevent just this kind of thing - replication of abnormal cells. But, HPV has its own oncoproteins which disable those TSPs which is how it can get around the bodys immune system and lead to dysplasia and/or cancer.

February 9, 2012 - 6:05am

It's great that you wrote an article on this - I've talked to several doctors about this and they've all given different answers. Most say to not worry about it because it's so common. They suggest only doing follow up papsmears and tests if there are abnormal cells in the cervix. I think most doctors give that answer because there is such a stigma against anything that is transmitted sexually, and in this case according to statistics about 50% of sexually active people will get it in their lifetime anyway. So if everyone basically has it, why should you feel ashamed? I would just do consistent screenings to hopefully prevent cancer like you would for other health issues.

February 8, 2012 - 10:41pm
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