Human papillomavirus

Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a group of host-specific DNA viruses, with a remarkable epithelial cell specificity: they have been reported principally in the ano-genital tract, urethra, skin, larynx, tracheo-bronchial and oral mucosa.

More than 100 different HPV types have been identified and classified as high (e.g. 16, 18, 31) or low (e.g. 11, 42, 36) -risk (HR and LR), based on their association with cervical carcinoma. The carcinogenic role of HR-HPV revolves mainly around two of its oncoproteins: HPV-E6 which promotes degradation of the p53 tumour suppressor gene product and HPV-E7 which modifies the pRb tumour suppressor gene product, inhibiting the activity of TGF-beta2.

Since these viral oncoproteins are capable of transforming primary human keratinocytes from either genital or upper respiratory tract epithelia, they have been considered to play a role in disrupting cell-cycle regulatory pathways leading to a genetic progression to ano-genital cancer and, possibly, also to oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC).

Recently, the oncogene HPV-E5 has also been found to transform cells by modulating growth factor receptors. On the basis of the high, although very variable, frequency of HR-HPV in OSCC, an oral malignant potential of HPV infection has been hypothesised but not definitively confirmed.

Major aims of this review are to update the understanding of HPV activities with respect to oral oncology and to comment on the HPV DNA reported frequencies in OSCC and potentially malignant oral lesions.

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