HPV infection is very common, infecting 70-80% of women at some stage in their lifetime. In most cases this infection is cleared by the woman’s immune system. However, in a small percentage of women the infection persists for longer and these women are at increased risk of developing high-grade cervical pre-cancer and ultimately cervical cancer.
The study, funded by a €120,000 grant from the Irish Cancer Society and led by Irish Cancer Society Research Scholar, Ms Christine White, established that cigarette smoking is a major risk factor associated with cervical cancer. The results also showed that women with detectable nicotine metabolite, called cotinine, in their urine sample were at a higher risk of acquiring a HPV infection than those who were not exposed to tobacco smoke. Furthermore, women with high levels of cotinine appear to be at an increased risk of developing high grade cervical pre-cancer compared to non-smokers. Results from this research show that 37% of smokers and 43% of heavy smokers (more than 10 cigarettes per day) compared to 24% of non-smokers developed a high grade cervical pre-cancer.
More than a thousand women with low-grade cervical abnormalities on their smear test were recruited for this study through the colposcopy clinics at The National Maternity Hospital, which followed the women over a period of 36 months from the time at which they had their first abnormal pap smear.
Speaking about her research, Ms Christine White, said, “Our study highlights the harmful effects of tobacco smoke on women’s health. We know that women who smoke have less immune cells in the cervix and our results have shown that these women are at greater risk of the HPV infection, and find it harder to fight off, putting them at a higher risk of getting cervical cancer. The funding from the Irish Cancer Society has been central to our work, and we are very thankful for their support and for the opportunity to bring these important findings to light.”
Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society, Prof. John Fitzpatrick said, “Cervical cancer is the second most common female cancer in Europe, and each year about 200 women are diagnosed with the disease in Ireland.