May 21, 2014 — More than two-thirds of U.S. residents have a human papillomavirus infection somewhere on their body, but most of these infections are asymptomatic and likely harmless, according to a new study, Live Science/Huffington Post reports (Rettner, Live Science/Huffington Post, 5/20).
For the study, researchers at New York University's Langone Medical Center analyzed data from NIH's Human Microbiome project. They focused on tissue samples from 103 healthy men and women, including 748 tissue swabs from various parts of the body, such as the skin, gut, mouth and vagina.
The researchers then decoded participants' DNA, removed the human DNA sequences and compared the remaining sequences with national HPV databases.
The researchers found that 69% of participants were infected with 109 of 148 known types of HPV. However, just four participants were infected with HPV 16 and 18, which are the strains associated with cervical cancer.
Among participants with HPV infections, 61% had infections in the skin, 41% had HPV present in the vagina, 30% had infections in the mouth and 17% had gut infections. Researchers found that about 59% of participants with HPV had the infection in only one organ, 31% had it in two organs and 10% were infected in three organs.
The study found that skin samples hosted the largest variety of HPV strains, with 80 different types found, 40 of which were exclusive to the skin. Meanwhile, vaginal tissue was associated with 43 different strains, including 20 types exclusive to the vagina, while mouth tissue was found to have roughly 33 strains, including five exclusive strains. By comparison, gut tissue had only six types of HPV strains, none of which were exclusive (Whiteman, Medical News Today, 5/21).
'Viral Biome' Possibly Beneficial
According to the researchers, the various strains of HPV tended to interact with one another to offset any symptoms, similar to a bacterial environment.
Zhiheng Pei, one of the researchers on the project, said, "Our study offers initial and broad evidence of a seemingly 'normal' HPV viral biome in people that does not necessarily cause disease and that could very well mimic the highly varied bacterial environment in the body, or microbiome, which is key to maintaining good health" (Kedmey, Time, 5/20).
Pei said that people should not be "alarmed" by the findings, adding that some "good" HPV strains could potentially stimulate the body's immune system to fight off the cancer-causing strains of the virus (Live Science/Huffington Post, 5/20).