Cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been nicknamed “the common cold of STDs” — because pretty much every sexually active person will get it at some point. Luckily, that scary stat is poised to change as more people receive the HPV vaccination, which protects against nine major strains of the virus.
HPV jumps easily from person to person, spread by pretty much all types of sexual contact. For most people, the infection clears up within 8 to 13 months, but sometimes the infection develops into a chronic condition, which increases risk for certain cancers — including cervical cancer, but also cancers of the anus, genitals, and throat. Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict if your immune system will vanquish your infection, or if you’ll develop a chronic infection.
Members of the lactobacilli family, keeping vaginas healthy across the globe. Image: Josef Reischig
Luckily, the vagina has some tricks up its sleeve to protect itself from HPV, and some of its best weapons are bacteria. Yep — a healthy vagina isn’t germ-free. To the contrary, it needs lactobacilli and other beneficial microbes to maintain a healthy environment. Bacteria from the Lactobacillus genus produce lactic acid and other chemicals, which help keep dangerous bugs away. Vaginal environments in which Lactobacillus gasseri dominate, for example, are more likely to clear HPV infections. L. crispatus helps trap HIV in a thick mucus, reducing infection risk. Other lactobacilli species secrete chemicals that ward off yeast infections. Sometimes, however, good bacteria lose this turf war, and “bad guys” move in.
The population of microbes that live in your vagina are known collectively as the vaginal microbiome.
University of Arizona researchers in Phoenix performed a “census” of the vaginal microbial communities of 100 premenopausal women. They learned that women who have cervical cancer or precancerous abnormalities have drastically different vaginal microbiomes. Healthy vaginas were generally dominated by lactobacilli, but as cervical health declined, their populations declined, and “bad” bacteria took over. One such bad guy, called Sneathia, was linked to HPV infection, precancer, and cervical cancer.
Which Came First?
Finding a new vaginal “bad guy” was exciting, and Sneathia had previously been linked to other gynecological problems, ranging from bacterial vaginosis to pregnancy complications. But the researchers were looking at a snapshot in time — they didn’t know what came first, the Sneathia or the cervical abnormalities. Were lactobacilli protecting the cervix whereas Sneathia were harming it, or did a chronic HPV infection set the stage for Sneathia to move in and thrive? It’s a real “chicken-and-egg” conundrum. Continue reading