MONDAY, Oct. 24, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Cancer-causing strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) may increase a woman's odds for heart disease, even if she doesn't have any of the recognized cardiovascular risk factors, a new study suggests.
It's the first investigation of a possible link between heart disease and HPV, which is one of the most common sexually transmitted pathogens in the United States and already well known for causing cervical cancers and other malignancies. Vaccines do exist that guard against HPV.
In their study, researchers analyzed data from nearly 2,500 women, aged 20 to 59, in the 2003-2006 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Of those women, almost 45 percent carried some form of HPV and about 23 percent had the cancer-causing strains of the virus.
The researchers found a strong association between cancer-causing HPV strains and heart disease, according to the team at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston.
They point out that nearly a fifth of people who have heart disease also don't have common risk factors, such as obesity, smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. That means that, "other 'nontraditional' causes may be involved in the development of the disease. HPV appears to be one such factor among women," study author Dr. Ken Fujise, director of the cardiology division at the hospital, said in a UTMB news release.
"This has important clinical implications," he added. "First, the HPV vaccine may also help prevent heart disease. Second, physicians should monitor patients with cancer-associated HPV to prevent heart attack and stroke, as well as HPV patients already diagnosed with [cardiovascular disease] to avoid future cardiovascular events."
There could also be a biological explanation for a HPV-heart disease link, the team said. They noted that HPV causes cancer by inactivating two tumor suppressor genes, p53 and retinoblastoma protein (pRb). Previous research has shown that p53 is essential in regulating the process of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), the researchers explained.
However, the link remains observational and causation has yet to be proven. "We're not certain if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the [HPV and heart disease]," Fujise stressed.
There does seem to be an association between the two, however, and, "if this biological mechanism is proven, a drug compound that inhibits the inactivation of p53 could help prevent CVD in women already infected with HPV," Fujise said.
Two experts in women's cardiovascular health applauded the research.
"It is great that researchers are thinking out of the box to assess cardiovascular risk in women," said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health and the Women's Heart Program at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City. "If more studies confirm these new research findings linking HPV to cardiovascular disease, this would be an additional tool for doctors to assess a women's cardiovascular risk. It would also get younger women to take their hearts seriously."
Cardiologist Dr. Suzanne Stenbaum agreed, calling the new study "incredibly important."
"Due to the public health implications and the pervasiveness of this disease, this correlation sheds a new light on the assessment and risk factor analysis of heart disease in women, many of whom have HPV," said Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "This lends a new direction into the understanding of who is at risk for heart disease and therefore another means for us to prevent it."
Fujise said more research is needed to investigate any possible link between HPV and heart disease in men.
The study received funding from grants from the American Heart Association.
The U.S. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute has more about heart disease in women.