It already fights the Papilloma virus (HPV), one of the leading causes of cancer not only in the uterus, but very few people know that it is also effective against oropharyngeal tumors, especially those affecting the tonsils. This type of cancer mainly affects young patients and its incidence has increased dramatically. The good news, however, is that the chances of recovery are increasing. We talked with Professor Giuseppe Spriano, Head of the Otorhinolaryngology Unit at Humanitas, about cancer vaccines and how this prevention system works, which has now become mandatory in Italy.
Tonsil cancer, what link with HPV?
Since 2018 the vaccine against Papilloma virus has become mandatory in Italy as an effective prevention system for adolescents, both male and female.
“It is a tumor that statistically affects twice as many men as women – explained Prof. Spriano – but fortunately these tumors caused by the virus have a double chance of recovery. The Papilloma virus is usually responsible for the tumor in the uterus but this same virus is also responsible for most cancers affecting the oropharynx, in particular the tonsils – continued the professor -. In the United States, for example, we now have over 80% of tonsil tumors caused by this virus, in Italy we are around 40%. That means that in addition to the more classical and known causes such as smoking and alcohol that determine 50% of these cancers, HPV also has its incidence. But how is it transmitted? “The only cause of transmission, as far as tonsils and the oropharyngeal area in general are concerned, is the oral sex – said the expert -: the virus enters through the mouth, and the tonsil has the shape of these crypts and cavities in which the virus penetrates to the cells, generating first a chronic infection and at a certain point it can infect the cells to the point of inserting its own viral genome into the DNA of those cells, thus transforming the cells into cancer cells. This is how the tumor develops”.
Robotic care and therapies
In cases of localized tumors, the surgical operation is therefore sufficient. Only in patients where the tumor is larger and perhaps more widespread are radiotherapy or chemotherapy also necessary. In otorhinolaryngology many steps forward have been made by surgery: “The robotic arm is inserted through the mouth and moves through the controls and arms of the surgeon acting on a console,” said the professor. “These are very sophisticated technologies in which the movement of the surgeon’s hands is replicated by the robot”.