Persistent infections with carcinogenic human papillomaviruses (HPV) cause virtually all cervical cancers. Cervical HPV types (n > 40) also represent the most common sexually transmitted agents, and most infections clear in 1-2 years. The risks of persistence and neoplastic progression to cancer and its histologic precursor, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grade 3 (CIN3), differ markedly by HPV type. To study type-specific HPV natural history, we conducted a 10,000-woman, population-based prospective study of HPV infections and CIN3/cancer in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. By studying large numbers of women, we wished to separate viral persistence from neoplastic progression. We observed a strong concordance of newly-revised HPV evolutionary groupings with the separate risks of persistence and progression to CIN3/cancer. HPV16 was uniquely likely both to persist and to cause neoplastic progression when it persisted, making it a remarkably powerful human carcinogen that merits separate clinical consideration. Specifically, 19.9% of HPV16-infected women were diagnosed with CIN3/cancer at enrollment or during the five-year follow-up. Other carcinogenic types, many related to HPV16, were not particularly persistent but could cause neoplastic progression, at lower rates than HPV16, if they did persist. Some low-risk types were persistent but, nevertheless, virtually never caused CIN3. Therefore, carcinogenicity is not strictly a function of persistence. Separately, we noted that the carcinogenic HPV types code for an E5 protein, whereas most low-risk types either lack a definable homologous E5 ORF and/or a translation start codon for E5. These results present several clear clues and research directions in our ongoing efforts to understand HPV carcinogenesis.
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