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HPV viruses may cause skin cancer

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A new study published in the July 8, 2010 Online First edition of British Medical Journal suggests that exposure to certain HVP viruses that cause non-genital warts may increase the risk of skin cancer in the infected, particularly in those on long-term steroid medications.

The study of 1561 people with skin cancer - squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma and controls found that people with skin cancers tended to have been infected with more types of HPV viruses.

Margaret R. Karagas, PhD, of Dartmouth Medical School, and colleagues looked for antibodies to 16 types of HPV viruses in people with skin cancers and those without.

They also found people on long-term steroid medicines which are indicated to treat chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma were more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer.  

The study is not a trial and a causal relationship suggesting that HPV infection causes skin cancer has not been established.

However, the possibility can be real.  Steroids are a weak immunity-suppressor.  Weakened immunity is known to be a risk factor for cancer including skin cancer.

Earlier research has also linked some HPV viruses to skin cancer, particularly in transplant patients who had their immune system suppressed and in people with some genetic diseases that suppress immune responses.

Some HPVs are well known to cause cervical cancer in some women, but the risk is considered rare.  The disease kills a few thousands of women in the U.S. each year - a risk that is far smaller than the death toll from highway traffic.

By David Liu
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