Treatments

Vaccines Might Help Fight Throat Cancer, But Hurdles Are High

There's been a big and controversial push to protect girls from cervical cancer by vaccinating them against the human papillomavirus. Turns out, the same vaccine might also protect boys from developing throat cancer later in life.

A doctor holds the human papilloma virus vaccine Gardasil. i i

Could this vaccine protect against more than cervical cancer and genital warts? Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
A doctor holds the human papilloma virus vaccine Gardasil.

Could this vaccine protect against more than cervical cancer and genital warts?

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Researchers estimate HPV causes more than 11,000 cases of throat cancers in the U.S. each year. Many are cropping up in younger people, especially in white men. Changes in sexual behavior have led to an increase in that could mean more than 20,000 cases annually by 2015, Forbes reports.

So wouldn't you think that a growing market like that would be attractive to makers of HPV vaccines? Not so much, it turns out.

Merck's Gardasil vaccine is approved for use in boys, but only to protect against genital warts. And a company spokeswoman told us in an email that Merck isn't looking to pursue approval of a throat-cancer indication anytime soon because of "competing research and business priorities." Same goes for Glaxo, according to Forbes.

A big hurdle is that doctors can't screen for throat cancer the way they can for cervical cancer with a Pap smear. Without a simple test, it's harder to show the HPV vaccine reduces the risk of throat cancer.

And that, in turn, makes it harder for vaccine makers to run a study that will pass muster with the Food and Drug Administration.

But the outlook isn't completely bleak. Ohio State researcher Maura Gillison, who got funding for a pilot vaccine study from Merck back in 2008 that has since ended, says further research "could be done either with federal funding or [support from] some philanthropic organization."

She told Shots that her team has already found reliable methods to detect HPV infections in the throat.

Marshall Posner, the incoming medical director of head and neck cancer at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, told Forbes it's a shame Merck isn't pursuing the research. "But in the end, this is a federal responsibility," he said. "It's a public health issue."

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