Heard of HPV? Well, You Might Never Have To Hear About It Again

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Do you recall that very first sex-ed class you took, maybe back in high school? In most cases, the experience is linked, at least to some extent, with the discovery of the frightening world of sexually transmitted diseases. They stand adjacent to a number of positively reinforced conceptualizations of safe sex, looming over the conversation with an egregious air of importance and irreversibility. Amongst these stands HPV, Human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted disease in the whole world. 

As a sexually transmitted condition, it is certainly not amongst the most famous and discussed. The lack of conversation is due, at least in part, to the fact that in the majority of cases, HPV goes away on its own, without causing any concrete health problems. However, especially amongst women, HPV can lead to different forms of cervical and vaginal cancers, which, despite taking years to develop, are nevertheless a very real outcome, as are genital warts it seems to also sometimes mature into. What is most curious about the disease, however, is this double-edged lack of a cure and of concrete, immediate symptoms. 

Given the lack of a cure or treatment and the lack of symptoms, it is extremely difficult to determine exactly who might have HPV, as millions of people are affected by the diseases, but show no symptoms and hence remain largely unaware. That’s why as many as 79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early twenties, are infected with the strange virus. The disease, then, which you can get by having anal, vaginal or oral sex with an infected partner, is an extremely peculiar one. Yet, its strange status may see yet another change, as a team of Mexican researchers from the nation’s National Polytechnic Institute seems to have found a new way to combat the papilloma virus. 

Led by Dr. Eva Ramòn Gallegos, the team conducted treatments on over 440 HPV-positive women, using a remarkably simple technique: photodynamic therapy. Essentially, an acid that is photosensitive, or, in other words, activated by light, is applied to the infected area (the cervix, in this case). About an hour after its application, the infected cells will “soak up” this acid, essentially absorbing its photosensitive properties. In other words, the acid is taken up by the damaged cells, which in turn themselves become sensitive to changes in light. Then, a light is applied, generally using a laser. The change in form of the molecule absorbed by the malignant cells causes for the release of “singlet oxygen”, a highly toxic form of our beloved molecule that kills the targeted cells from inside using the same principles as those outlined in the video below:

Out of all of the women that came into the study as HPV positive, but without any adjacent lesions, not a single one left the study uncured. In an HPV positive, lesion free group, then, the success rate was a staggering 100 percent. For those who did show lesions along with the infection, the success rate dropped to 64 percent, as cells involved in the lesions were more difficult to reach and selectively kill. However, throughout the entirety of the process, the team recorded “no damage to any healthy tissue” was observed. A completely risk-free cure for the number one sexually transmitted disease? That’s huge!

Now, naturally, additional research needs to be conducted for the treatment to be accepted as medical standard. However, it is a major step forward towards a cure that humanity has been searching for decades. More importantly still, given that the disease itself remains largely dormant, we seem to have found a solution for those cases at risk of developing more troublesome complications. 

Dr. Gallegos’ study then joins a plethora of other academics to have discovered possible cures in the short time that 2019 has put at our disposal. The even more amazing news is that this discovery is coming out of the laboratories of a country that has long dutifully watch the world’s academic breakthroughs, but which has been largely quiet in the last handful of years. The discovery, then, is representative of a global movement towards education and healthcare that should be representative of the incredible things our world can achieve with equal opportunity and the proper drive.