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People with hepatitis C are 2 to 5 times more likely to develop certain head and neck cancers
(MD Anderson Cancer Center) Long associated with liver cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a study from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center revealed that the hepatitis C virus (HCV) is associated with certain head and neck cancers.
The findings, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, could have significant implications for both the screening of those with the virus and the treatment of those with head and neck cancers.
Hepatitis C, the most common blood-borne infection in the U.S., is a virus that affects up to 1.5 percent of the population.
It’s estimated that as many as 3.9 million are chronically infected with the virus, according to the researchers.
In the last few years, new antiviral drugs have made it possible to cure more than 90 percent of the HCV population, says Harrys A. Torres, M.D., associate professor, Infectious Disease, Infection Control and Employee Health.
The antivirals are oral medications taken once or twice daily with almost no side effects, he explains.
In 2009, MD Anderson opened what remains the only clinic of its kind at a comprehensive cancer center to address the unmet medical needs of its patients with HCV.
“To our surprise, we saw a number of head and neck cancer patients who tested positive for the hepatitis C virus. With this observation we began to wonder if there was an undiscovered correlation between the two. Our findings tell us that the association between hepatitis C and oropharyngeal and non-oropharyngeal cancers is as high as its link to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
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Oropharyngeal cancers occur in the oropharynx, or the middle part of the throat, including the back one-third of the tongue, the soft palate, tonsil, and side and back walls of the throat.
Non-oropharyngeal cancers include those occurring in the oral cavity, nasal cavity and larynx.
This finding, says Torres, is an area of great interest for future research study. Given the association found between the two viruses in this patient population, Torres and colleagues plan to look at other HPV-associated cancers and their possible link to HCV, under MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program.
Torres notes that it will be important to screen for HCV because treatment with antiviral drugs may possibly prevent cancer from ever developing, as reported for liver cancers and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It may also impact treatment for patients who have already developed cancer. In fact, for patients with HCV and some indolent non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Torres notes that the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines now recommend that the HCV be treated first, given that it is curable. In some cases, explains Torres, the lymphoma has disappeared upon treating the HCV with antiviral therapies.
With these findings, MD Anderson plans to screen and treat all head and cancer patients with HCV and follow their outcomes.
Educating both the general hepatology and infectious disease communities — those primarily treating patients with HCV — is critical so they understand HCV impacts not only the liver, but is a systemic infection.
“What we are trying to make all understand is that this is an infection that has consequences — and it’s an infection we can cure,” says Torres.
The study was supported by the NIH/NCI, award number P30CA016672 and was the recipient of the 2015 Conquer Cancer Foundation of American Society of Clinical Oncology Merit Award.
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