What’s new in anal cancer research?
Research about anal cancer is now going on in many places around the country. Every year, scientists find out more about what causes the disease, how to prevent it, and how to better treat it.
Causes and prevention
Research has shown that the human papilloma virus (HPV) is a major factor in causing many cases of anal cancer. Researchers are learning how HPV affects anal cells to cause them to become cancerous. It is hoped that this knowledge will help scientists find new drugs to fight this disease.
Finding anal cancer early
Research is focused on the value of screening tests for anal cancer, especially in people with major risk factors. A test called anal cytology (or the anal Pap test) allows doctors to look at cells from the lining of the anus under a microscope. Some doctors are already using this test for people at high risk for anal cancer, and it might prove useful in finding cell changes before they become anal cancer.
Better treatments are also being studied. Doctors are learning how to focus radiation beams more exactly. They are also looking at whether it works better to use 2 types of radiation at the same time.
Using radiation along with chemotherapy has been found to reduce the number of people who need surgery for anal cancer. Different chemotherapy treatments are also being studied.
Studies are also looking at using a cream (imiquimod) to treat anal intraepithelial neoplasia (AIN). Imiquimod is FDA approved as a treatment for anal and genital warts. It has been used “off-label” to treat AIN in HIV positive men with good results. Lately it has been shown to be helpful in a clinical trial. The cream is applied to the problem area 3 times a week.
Doctors are also looking at ways to improve surgery and its side effects. For instance, studies are now looking at using a man-mad bowel sphincter in some people who have had a certain type of surgery. The hope is that this might allow people to avoid the need for a permanent colostomy.
The HPV vaccines in use at this time help prevent HPV infection, but they do not treat infections already present. Doctors are working on vaccines to treat those who already have HPV infections by causing their body’s immune system cells to attack the HPV-infected cells. Another goal of this research is to help the immune system attack pre-cancers and even cancers that contain HPV. An experimental vaccine has shown promise so far in treating pre-cancers of the vulva, but results for anal cancer are not in yet.
Last Medical Review: 01/14/2013
Last Revised: 04/18/2014