Potential barrier against spread of HPV

Riin Aljas
, teadustoimetuse juhataja
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Scientists of the University of Tartu Institute of Technology have found a way to use bioluminescence to monitor the growth of the human papillomavirus (HPV) and effects different drugs have on the virus. The method can be used to develop new medicines.

„Almost everyone is infected with HPV during the course of their lives; however, a large part of infections pass relatively harmlessly with many people never exhibiting symptoms,“ said PhD. Mart Toots who concentrated his research on life-threatening or oncogenic types of the virus.

The human papillomavirus has more than 200 subtypes only some of which are dangerous. Unlike benign excrescences that typically manifest as warts, malignant types of the virus could lead to cancer.

The most common tumor caused by HPV is cervical cancer that is diagnosed in half a million women every year. Up to 20 cases are diagnosed per 100,000 women in Estonia. The virus can lead to genital cancers in men even though such cases are much rarer.

While it is possible to vaccinate against HPV, no cure has been found. That is why all research to find a cure is necessary. In the study, published in the PLOS Pathogens journal today, scientists attempted to find an effective way of measuring how different drugs affect the virus. Quicker testing can streamline the entire development process.

Estonians created a system to measure the effect different compounds have on slowing down the spread of HPV. The researchers complemented cells with a firefly's luciferase gene. The latter produces an enzyme that causes bioluminescence.

To simplify, scientists changed the genome of HPV to make the growth and life cycles of the virus more visible using bioluminescence. This made it possible to use rapid tests to determine whether potential cures had an effect on the virus or not. The solution also makes it possible to test great quantities of compounds.

The same method can be used to measure the activity of other viruses or genes. University of Tartu researchers chose HPV because the university has spent years studying it and because a lot of people are infected with it every year.

“The USA alone spends $3.4 billion a year on treating diseases caused by HPV. If we could find a cure, this spending could be reduced, or better yet, we could use that money ourselves,” said professor of biomedical technology at the university Mart Ustav.

“Greed has always been a driving force. And because we have the know-how and the skill, as well as professional researchers, why shouldn't we try? It seems to be going pretty well so far!” he said.

Ustav said that patent applications have been filed for everything discovered so far, and that the university has three scenarios for what comes next: to sell the solution to a buyer who wants to develop an HPV cure, to find a partner to finance future development and clinical trials until the drug can be marketed, to find partners and fully develop and market the drug.

“We will see whether any of these plans will work,” the professor said.