The link between human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and cervical cancer is clear: High-risk strains of HPV cause 99 percent of all cervical cancer cases. But a new study published in the American Society for Microbiology’s journal, mBio, suggests that certain types of bacteria may also play a role in cancer of the cervix.
Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln identified bacteria associated with high-grade cervical lesions, those that have a high likelihood of becoming cancerous. They discovered more and diverse bacteria — including Mycoplasma, Staphylococcus, and others — in high-grade lesions than in low-grade lesions or healthy cervices (yes, that’s the plural of “cervix” – who knew?).
Although this study suggests certain bacteria can cause cervical lesions to grow, the researchers don’t fully understand the connection at this time: For example, are the bacteria present before the HPV or do they do they show up after HPV infection? Do the bacteria cause chronic inflammation, which increases HPV infection risk? Though more research is needed, these distinctions could have important implications for cervical cancer treatment and prevention — for instance, certain antibiotics that prevent the spread of bacteria could possibly help thwart cervical cancer from forming.
Want all the study specs? Samples were taken from cervical lesions in 144 women in Tanzania, a country that has one of the highest cervical cancer mortality rates in the world. First, the researchers compared bacteria in women with and without HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), because HIV is suspected of increasing the risk of HPV infection. In women with HIV, more bacteria were present, and cervical lesions tended to be higher-grade. In both HIV-positive and HIV-negative women, the presence of more Mycoplasma bacteria indicated high-grade cervical lesions.