In a finding that could reveal new ways to prevent and treat cervical cancer, researchers have discovered the specific group of cells that, when infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), cause most cases of the disease.
The cells can become cancerous when infected with HPV while other cervical cells often do not, said senior author Christopher Crum, director of women's and perinatal pathology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Massachusetts. Moreover, when they are removed, they do not appear to regenerate.
“We have discovered a discrete population of cells that are located in a specific area of the cervix that could be responsible for most, if not all, of HPV-associated cervical cancers,” said Crum. The cells are located near the opening of the cervix known as the squamo-columnar junction.
These newly identified cells are remnants of embryogenesis, the process of cell division and growth that occurs during the transition from embryo to fetus. “It appears that that particular group of remaining embryonic cells at the squamo-columnar junction is the population you must infect, at least in the majority of cases, to produce the significant cancers and precancers,” Crum said.
Knowing the biology of these cells and where they reside could help physicians both clarify which cervical precancers (dysplasias) need treatment and also possibly prevent cancer altogether by destroying the cells in advance.
Further study may shed light on whether similar cells reside in other areas of the body also known to be affected by HPV-related cancers, such as the penis, vulva, anus, and throat.
The findings build on the group's previous research that identified the origin of rare and sometimes cancerous changes in certain cells in the esophagus.
[PNU editor’s note: The study, “A Discrete Population of Squamocolumnar Junction Cells Implicated in the Pathogensis of Cervical Cancer,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2012;doi:10.1073/pnas.1206284109).]
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