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Enzyme discovery can lead to new cervical cancer treatment

Scientists discovered an enzyme used by the human papillomavirus (HPV) that can potentially be targeted to fight cervical, mouth, and anal cancers.

Although there is a vaccine for HPV prevention, it is not available everywhere and some people refuse to take it due to religious sensitivity and cost. As a result, HPV continues to be the most common sexually transmitted disease and affects more than 79 million Americans.

Prevalence of HPV cancers

Nearly all cervical cancers in women are caused by HPV infections and about 500,000 new patients are affected by HPV around the world with a global death rate of about54%. HPV also causes over 130,000 cases of mouth cancers and is the cause of one in 100,000 of anal cancers.

HPV usually goes away and does not cause any health problems, but it can also cause genital warts and cancer. There are tests for HPV to screen for cervical cancer, such as pap smears in females, but there are no tests specifically for HPV status. Since most people find out they have HPV when they have health problems such as genital warts and cancer, it is important to find new treatment options.

A new discovery regarding human papillomavirus (HPV) can lead to new treatments for mouth, anal, and cervical cancers. Scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the United States discovered that the virus uses an enzyme in our bodies called USP46 to form tumors and cause them to grow. Fortunately, this enzyme can be targeted by drugs since it has a pocket that chemicals can attack and inactivate it.

Discovering how the enzyme USP46 allows HPV infected cancer cells to grow provides drug companies with a new target for cancer treatment. They published their results in the journal Molecular Cell. Multiple assays were used to discover the enzyme and experiments were conducted using cells as well as mice to study how the enzyme works and attempt to relate it to how the enzyme would work in human bodies. The mice were injected with tumors that were injected into cells to study how blocking this enzyme in mice would work to prevent tumor growth.

New treatment options for HPV cancers

Since enzymes can be successfully targeted by chemicals, HPV cells that rely on USP46 can potentially be targeted by drugs that inactivate the enzyme. The group at the University of Virginia School of Medicine is screening chemicals that prevent USP46 from working, which can lead to developing new drugs that can stop HPV cancers from growing. Although this study used cells to study early-stage cervical cancer, it has the potential for implications in humans that are affected by HPV. The scientists used assays that are not practical to implement in clinical settings, especially in developing countries that do not have access to all the healthcare resources we have available in the Western world. However, if chemicals are discovered that can stop the USP46 enzyme from working and new drugs are developed, eventually, they may become affordable to give patients suffering from HPV infections around the world.

Read about the best ways to prevent cervical cancer here. 

Written by Tatsiana Verstak, MS, BS


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet. Division of STD Prevention, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. Page last updated November 16, 2017.
  2. Kiran, S. et al. The Deubiquitinase USP46 Is Essential for Proliferation and Tumor Growth of HPV-Transformed Cancers. Molecular Cell. Volume 72, Issue 5, P823-835.E5, December 06, 2018.


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