While welcoming a cure for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a Maltese obstetrician and gynaecologist says more testing is needed.

Professor Charles Savona-Ventura from the University of Malta, believes that the new treatment for the extremely common and homogenous virus, is a very positive step towards medicating against the HPV infection and also towards treating cervical cancer, which can be the result of HPV.

HPV is predominantly transmitted through sexual activity and may frequently result in cancer in the genitals, both male and female, as well as the anal area. There are over 100 variants of HPV.

‘Further studies will be needed to truly prove its efficacy and practical usability.’ Professor Savona –Ventura told Newsbook.com.mt.

A cure using drugs and light

The Mexican press reported last week that Mexican scientist, Eva Ramon Gallegos at the Mexico National Polytechnic Institute had managed to cure 29 female sufferers of the Human Papilloma Virus through a process which Gallegos had been perfecting over the previous two decades. Previous tests had been carried out on 420 patients in Oaxaca and Vercruz.

Eva Ramon Gallegos and team

According to scientists from the National Biological Sciences School, the Mexican scientist was using a photodynamic therapy which provided a way to stop tumourous cancerous growths (malignant neoplasm) through a non-invasive method that did not require a surgical procedure.

The Scientific community was however, more cautious in its approach. While acknowledging the find as significant and ‘promising’. Professor Savona-Ventura explained to Newsbook.com.mt that the therapy uses a combination of light and drugs to help kill the infection. The regimen includes using a photosensitizer agent exposed to a wavelength of light, along with the administration a drug to the patient. With the light producing molecular oxygen, it could then kill nearby cells infected with the virus. ‘So it truly is another form of ‘local destruction’, possibly having less potential side effects and easier to apply.’ he explained.

When interviewed, Gallegos explained that the results over the last two decades ‘were encouraging’ and that the recent success ‘opens the possibility of making the treatment more efficient’.

Increasingly common virus linked to cervical cancer

HPV is a highly common infection which can be spread (in 30% of cases) through sexual transmission. It has grown in frequency in Maltese men and women in the last three decades, according to Professor Savona-Ventura.

Research has uncovered that there are over 150 different subtypes under the collective name of HPV and these can be spread through contact with the virus or infected cells. Around 80% of sexually active people can contract the illness at different points in their lives, and while the majority of types do not show visible signs, some types create warts on different body parts including the genitalia, the anal area and the throat.

While these types are largely treatable, there are a few versions of the virus which alter the function of the cells turning them malignant and cancerous. These are mostly found around the head, neck, penis and cervix. While cause for concern, the view is that the infection does not necessarily lead to cancer thanks in part to the very slow speed of cell change.

Professor Savona Ventura explained that of women with the HPV infection, only 10 will face the virus cells turn malignant. From those 10, only 1 will actually develop cervical cancer. He says that regular screening and catching precancerous lesions before they turn malignant has helped stem incidents of cervical cancer in the Maltese female population.

According to Governmental figures on the regularity of Cervical cancer incidences between 2007 and 2016, across all ages, worked out to 110 cases, an average of 10 per year. By rates per 100,000, the highest frequency of recorded incidents, were recorded in the age brackets of 55 – 59 and 60 – 64. The figures also show the number of deaths over the period was most prevalent within the 55-59 bracket, with 41 deaths recorded across the ten year period. The numbers also reflect that the number of deaths has also lessened.

Catching cervical cancer in its early stages

When asked about the existing processes for treating cervical cancer, Professor Savona-Ventura explains that the local destruction and removal of cells within the region has been the standard procedure. He adds that Imiquimod, a cream applied to genital warts, has so far been the prime medication given to treat the visible condition and treat the infection. This combined with early screening and timely treatment has helped reduce the levels of women contracting the form of cancer later in life.

Returning to the latest discovery, Gallegos also explained in addition to providing a 100% cure for HPV, the treatment could also work towards eradicating lesions before they become malignant leading to cervical cancer.

She explained that the treatment had removed 100% of HPV in patients with no pre-malignant lesions, 64.3% of those with the virus and lesions, 57.2% of women with visible lesions and no HPV.

While the discovery of a cure for HPV is promising as is the prospect of a developing medical treatment to eliminate the early stages of cervical cancer, Professor Savona-Vertura states that more tests need to be conduct to prove that it works. Added to this, ‘What would be truly news-breaking would be an actual medication that boosts the body to help it fight the HPV infection at the cervix’.

This could be something like an improved Imiquimod cream. But, for now ‘any tool that is made available in the medical armamentarium is welcome’, he said.