If you are sexually active, there’s an 8-out-of-10 chance that you have been infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) at least once. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, affecting more than 79 million sexually active adults right now. Since there is no sign of symptoms of high-risk HPV infections, individuals do not even know if they are infected or have HPV. More than 36,500 of these individuals will receive an HPV-related cancer diagnosis this year.
The Trouble with High-Risk and Persistent HPV Infections
When you think of sexually transmitted infections, what typically comes to mind are those with obvious symptoms. Herpes and trichomoniasis, for example, are typically accompanied by itching, burning, and odorous vaginal discharge. However, there are many different types of HPV infections and not all types have noticeable symptoms, like other sexually transmitted infections.
There are more than 100 types of human papillomavirus that can infect humans, with 40 of these spreading through sexual, or intimate skin-to-skin contact. This group of HPV infections breaks down to either low-risk HPV or high-risk HPV. Low-risk HPV infections produce visible lesions— also known as genital warts— but don’t cause cancer. However, high-risk HPV infections have no obvious signs or symptoms but may cause cancer.
High-risk HPV can only be detected through a tissue swab or PAP smear. Early detection of high-risk HPV allows for early intervention followed by frequent screening for management of persistent HPV infections to prevent development into cancer. Critically, nearly a quarter of women in the United States are overdue for their routine gynecological exams. If you’re one of them, you may be at an increased risk for developing cancer from an asymptomatic, high-risk HPV infection.
There are 15 types of high-risk HPV that may cause cancer. Changes to cellular DNA due to a persistent high-risk HPV infection increases the risk of developing one of six different types of HPV-related cancers. The two most common cancers caused by HPV are cervical cancer in women and head-and-neck cancer in men.
How Persistent and High-Risk HPV Infections Turn into Cancer
The majority of HPV infections will be cleared naturally by the immune system in 18 to 24 months. A person could contract HPV early in life but not have symptoms until years later. The longer an HPV infection remains in the body, the more potential there is for it to become problematic. HPV infections can remain dormant, or in other words inactive, and cause no harm but still be transmitted to others. If there is a trigger like stress on the immune system, poor nutrition, or other infections, the dormant HPV infection can become an active infection again.
An active HPV infection may have significant consequences that could lead to cancer if left undetected. Again, this is reminder why it is so important for women to keep up with PAP smears as routine screening for cancer prevention. The challenge is that we do not currently have effective screening tools for HPV in other areas of body exposed to HPV infections such as the throat, larynx, nose, and anus. Helping to support immune function and keep it strong could help the body in clearing HPV infections.
Using a Japanese medicinal mushroom root extract to help the body fight high-risk HPV infections
The immune system is battered every day, all day. Whether awake or asleep, active or at rest, the immune system is at work fighting infections, clearing non-infectious diseases, healing injuries, repairing cellular damage, and even neutralizing toxins.
When there is a persistent active infection, the immune systems go into overdrive, and it becomes worn down and less likely to clear the chronic, persistent infections like HPV. Taking care of the immune system starts with a proper diet, restful sleep, regular exercise, and other healthy choices. Sometimes that is still not enough, particularly if the body is immunocompromised, under physiological stress, or the natural aging process weakens immune function.
That’s where AHCC® supplementation could make a difference. AHCC® is a unique cultured extract derived from root of lentinula edodes mushrooms better known as shiitake mushrooms. Although often found in soups, stews, and stir-fry, eating shiitake mushrooms, even every day, will not provide same benefits as AHCC® supplementation.
Since 2004, I have been evaluating the potential benefits of AHCC® supplementation to help support the immune function to clear persistent high-risk HPV infections. It has been a long process because we took same systematic approach we would with a new drug. We started in the lab with studies in cell lines and then animal studies that looked promising enough to move forward to humans. Next, we conducted two small studies called “pilot studies” to help determine the duration of AHCC® supplementation that would help the body clear persistent HPV infections. After these studies showed benefit, we had to apply for peer-reviewed funding to support additional studies in humans.
Recently, my research team at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston was able to confirm that AHCC® supplementation appears to support immune function to clear persistent high-risk HPV infections. This research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and was conducted in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled Phase II study to test our hypothesis.
The study focused on 50 women with greater than a two-year history of persistent high-risk HPV infection. The women in the study were placed into two groups of 25: those receiving AHCC® supplementation for six months, followed by six months of placebo; and those receiving a placebo for the full 12 months of the study. A total of 19 patients on placebo and 23 patients on AHCC® supplementation completed the study.
At the end of the study, two-thirds (63.6%) of participants cleared persistent HPV infections after taking 3 grams of AHCC® supplementation once daily for six months with no adverse side effects. This is exciting news because becoming HPV-negative may decrease the long-term risk of HPV-related cancers.
These results also mean that although there is no formal systemic medical treatment available for high-risk HPV infections, there is hope now for treatment with easily available AHCC® supplementation, which has been reported to be safe in studies. That said, it’s still important to talk to your own health care provider about using AHCC® supplementation to support your immune system in clearing persistent HPV infections.
HPV is a distressing condition. We have enough to worry about without wondering if, or when, we will get cancer from a silent infection. My research team at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston is on the path to significantly reducing, and hopefully eliminating the risk of HPV-related cancers in both women and men. And it all starts here: with an HPV screening, HPV vaccination, and now an option to use AHCC® supplementation to help support the immune function to clear HPV if already infected.