Damon Runyon News

June 23, 2020

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is already recommended for females and males ages 9 through 45 to prevent cervical, vulvar, vaginal, and anal cancers. Now, doctors can add cancers of the head and neck to the list. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the vaccine for these cancers that are predicted to cause an estimated 14,500 deaths this year.

This is welcome news to Former Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator Maura L. Gillison, MD, PhD, who has been on a quest for this approval for over a decade. Dr. Gillison, now at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, was the first to demonstrate that HPV causes a form of head and neck cancer at a time when most researchers thought HPV caused only cervical and small numbers of genital cancers.

Today, this outlook has completely changed. Since 2018, the incidence of head and neck cancers caused by the human papillomavirus surpassed that of cervical cancer in the United States. “Rates of HPV-caused oral cancers continue to rise every year in the U.S., particularly among men,” Dr. Gillison said. Men are three to five times more vulnerable than women. 

In 2017, Dr. Gillison published one of the first studies on the effect of vaccination on oral HPV infection in the U.S. population and found that young men who had been vaccinated were not infected by the high-risk virus types that cause cancer. “The vaccine may be as high as 100% effective in preventing those oral infections,” she says. 

Doctors, including Dr. Gillison, hope that this approval will help publicize the importance of vaccinating both boys and girls to prevent serious HPV-related cancers.

Read more: STAT News