The study was performed by Maura Gillison of Hopkins' Kimmel Cancer Center. She and her colleagues studied 100 men and women with newly diagnosed cancer of the tonsils, back of the tongue and throat, and found that 72 percent of their tumors contained HPV-16, one of the strains of HPV known to cause cervical cancer and cancer of the anus, vagina, penis and vulva.
People with antibodies in their blood indicating prior HPV infection were 58 times as likely to develop oral cancer than the general population, a figure Gillison said dwarfs the connection between high cholesterol and heart attacks.
The incidence was three-fold higher for smokers, 2.5-fold higher for drinkers and 8.6-fold higher for people who reported more than six oral sex partners in their lifetime.
The authors explained that oral sex of any kind was the main way oral HPV infections are transmitted, although mouth-to-mouth transmission has not been ruled out.
Luckily, oral cancer remains relatively uncommon and has a good survival rate at five years. The authors said they are working on ways to detect the problem early and are collaborating with the makers of the HPV vaccine Gardasil to see if it curbs oral as well as cervical malignancies.
The study appears in the May 10 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.