Can proper nutrition prevent infection by HPV?

I held a Q & A session on my Instagram and have only had a chance now to write up some of the posts (#friyay). I thought this was such an interesting question:

“Hi there! I just saw that your research is on HPV. Interesting timing for me because a friend was just saying this morning that HPV can be prevented with proper nutrition. I was only able to do a quick Google search and could not find any credible sources discussing this. I was wondering if you could comment on any link between nutrition and HPV? Or perhaps you could point me to some studies on this topic?”

My first response to this was er… no. Sure, nutrition does play a part in maintaining a healthy immune system, but unless there’s a specific compound in food that’s been found to have high antiviral activity, I doubt that eating healthily alone prevents infection by human papillomavirus (HPV). But instead of completely writing it off, I thought I’d do a little digging around on the interwebs. But first, a little background…

Background on HPV

Only a handful of the approximately 200 types of HPV cause cancer – that is cervical, anal and oropharyngeal cancers. The rest normally cause warts, also known as papillomas or they have no effect. HPV is responsible for causing cancer in more than half a million people a year worldwide. So infection by high-risk HPV types that cause cancer is extremely common and is easily transmitted to skin cells that are susceptible to infection by direct physical contact. However, only a small proportion of these infections will progress to cancer and most people are able to clear the infection. It’s not known why some infections are benign and others cause cancer, but we think it might have to do with small variations in the genes of these common viruses.

Moving on to the crux of the matter…

Could eating a healthy diet really prevent infection by HPV?

A study suggested that increasing dietary intake of lutein/zeaxanthin (found in kale, basil, lettuce and broccoli), β-cryptoxanthin (found in orange rind, papaya, egg yolk, butter and apples) and vitamin C (peppers, guava, kale, kiwi, broccoli and strawberries) appear to be associated with reduced risk of persistence of type-specific HPV infection. Persistence of HPV is a strong determinant of risk of cervical cancer. Eating papaya, a major source of dietary carotenoids was also associated with reduced risk of persistent infection. Another study also indicated that antioxidant vitamins (mainly α-carotene, β-carotene, and vitamins E and C) might be beneficial in reducing the risk of invasive cervical cancer.

The science behind the claim

In recent years you might have heard about something called free radicals if you paid attention to those wrinkle-blasting moisturiser commercials.

Free radicals are created by oxidation in the body during normal metabolic processes or even in the fight against bacteria and viruses. Simply put, they’re basic molecules with an electron missing that causes it to be unstable. In an effort to stabilise itself, they steal an electron from other chemical structures in the body. These chemical structures that have had an electron stolen become free radical themselves, thus starting a whole chain reaction that might disrupt a living cell. This is the basis behind ageing, hence the claims behind anti-wrinkle creams being able to mop up free radicals!

What do free radicals and fruit salads have to do with cervical cancer?

Antioxidant vitamins found in healthy foods may prevent free-radical damage to DNA as they are able to neutralise these free radicals and enhance the immune system [1, 5], linking back to my initial thoughts on this subject.jeffrey-deng-749

The bottom line, I’m still not overly convinced that eating your veggies will prevent infection by HPV because there aren’t specific antiviral compounds in fruit and vegetables that will clear the virus (or definitely not in high enough concentrations). What it will do, however, is help in maintaining a healthy immune system that may assist your body to clear the infection. Persistence of HPV is necessary for cancer to develop. HPV infection is however completely preventable if you are vaccinated before exposure. Want to know about vaccination? Leave me a comment 🙂

More information:
1. McCullough, M. L. & Giovannucci, E. L. Diet and cancer prevention. Oncogene 23, 6349–6364, 10.1038/sj.onc.12077161207716 (2004).
2. Stebbing, J. & Hart, C. A. Antioxidants and cancer. Lancet Oncol 12, 996, 10.1016/S1470-2045(11)70282-0S1470-2045(11)70282-0 (2011).


10 (more) things about me

I recently shared 10 things about me on my Instagram and thought, why not share even more? Saves time on Insta-stalking 😉 So here goes…

  1. I’m short (1.47 m of fun-sized goodness) – somebody once told me I could be classified as a pygmy. #rude
  2. Water is my favourite drink- I’m a cheap date!
  3. I suffer from anxiety; if you’ve ever had to pull yourself out of an anxiety attack- big ups to you.
  4. I’d love to have an event planning business one day.
  5. I have a fear of birds.
  6. Linked to the previous fact, I thought I could get over my ornithophobia by doing a Masters project on a parrot virus. It made my phobia worse.
  7. My car is small (like me), so we named him Tyrion (also #rude?).
  8. Most people love rain, but it just makes me unproductive and sad.
  9. I like the smell of jasmine on a warm summer evening and the crisp morning air in Spring.
  10. My favourite colour is duck egg blue.

What fact from the list above surprised you the most?

Let me know what you thought in the comments below! And if you have a list of fun facts most people don’t know about you, feel free to share. I’d love to read your answers.


The star-shaped polymer causing deadly bacteria to commit suicide

Never have I ever…

a) taken antibiotics while being treated for “the flu”.

b) asked the doctor for antibiotics, when there was no need for it.

c) failed to complete the full length of prescription of antibiotics.

d) used antibacterial soaps.

Here’s a spin on the well known drinking game! If you are guilty of the above, you might have inadvertently contributed to the increase in antimicrobial resistance. Continue reading “The star-shaped polymer causing deadly bacteria to commit suicide”

On Being Kind in Academia

This is such a good article! PhD life is so tough, surrounding yourself with positive people makes it somewhat easier. We need an organisational culture change! Be the change you wish to see in the world.

PhD Life

Funding is scarce, jobs are few and competition is fierce, but can’t we all just be friends? Probably not, but it we won’t hurt if try to be kind, on the contrary…

A terrifying place called ‘Academia’?

I have been in the academia for a while now and have the experience of studying in two culturally quite different education systems, as well taking part in some international and cross-cultural academic programmes and projects. Over the time, I have had the opportunity to meet many remarkably nice and warm people, and to enjoy a genuinely friendly and encouraging atmosphere. Sadly, I got familiar with the other side as well – academics being bitter, resentful and overtly hostile to each other. Although I suppose this is the case with every other professional niche as well, I feel that is particularly necessary to address it in relation to PhD studies. Reading articles about…

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Oral sex, Michael Douglas and head and neck cancer

Now this one’s sure to get the tongues wagging! Prudey Patty’s be warned Speak no evil These seemingly unrelated topics all have one thing in common;  a sexually transmitted virus.

Michael Douglas most notoriously cited oral sex as the cause of his throat cancer debacle, much to the embarrassment of his wife Catherine Zeta Jones. The virus he scapegoated was human papillomavirus or HPV.  Douglas has since‘fessed up, stating that he actually had tongue cancer due to smoking and drinking!

Nevertheless, most of us will become infected with HPV at some point but will luckily clear the infection. HPV is responsible for a range of troublesome maladies, ranging from warts on your hands and feet, or genitals and on the more serious end of the spectrum, cancer! So what is it about HPV that causes certain individuals to eventually develop cancer? To answer that question, we’d have to take a journey back in time, to when the link was first made between HPV and cervical cancer.

The father of HPV research

Harald zur Hausen, German virologist who discovered the link between HPV and cervical cancer. Photo cred: Prolineserver

In the 50s and 60s scientists observed that cervical cancer was more common amongst prostitutes and married women, and virtually non-existent in nuns. The thinking at the time was, if cancer itself was not contagious, there was  probably a  sinister sexually transmittable virus at work. In the 70’s, Dr Harald zur Hausen, after going against the current thinking at the time in the cervical cancer field and not finding bands that make him dance many failed attempts, was able to positively link HPV to cervical cancer [1]. Since then, HPV has been implicated in other anogenital cancers and in a subset of head and neck cancers. It is now known that there are almost 200 different HPV types that are classified according to the likelihood to cause cancer; as low risk (most common types HPV 6, 11) or high risk (HPV 16, 18) or probable cancer causing (HPV 26, 53). In 2008, Dr zur Hausen was one of three virologists to receive the Nobel prize in Physiology & Medicine [1].

From #goodtimes to head and neck cancer…

Oral sex has been given a bad rap, as it is the means by which the virus gets to the head and neck region. It is thought that heterosexual men are more likely to contract head and neck cancer than women as HPV is more commonly found in cervical than penile tissue [2]. HPV is highly specific when it comes to the types of cells it infects. When a virus is not able to properly support infection, it may lead to the development of cancer. In the case of tumours in the head and neck region, HPV is capable of infecting epithelial cells in the tonsils, although these cells are not preferable. Cancer is then a result of HPV not being able to complete its life cycle [3].

How does HPV cause cancer?

Time to get to the nitty gritty- how exactly is a virus capable of causing cancer?! Papillomaviruses are considered to be small due to their approximately 8000 bp, doublestranded DNA genomes.

Prototype map
The genome of a high risk type, HPV31.

The primary viral proteins that are responsible for causing mayhem and misery are the E6, E7 and E5 proteins (refer to genome map above). These viral cancer causing proteins act by overcoming human tumour suppressor proteins. Specifically, the E6 protein induces degradation of a human protein, P53. P53 is involved in controlling cell cycling and inducing processes that allow DNA to be repaired [2]. The E7 protein binds and inactivates another human tumour suppressor gene, pRB, leading to cell-cycle disruption and cancer [2]. The E5 gene isn’t an innocent bystander in all of this, but helps the other two in causing cancer. HPV infections can be cleared, however, HPV can be quite sneaky and hides from the immune system [3].

Should you care?

HPV chronicles

Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common cancer worldwide and causes over 300 000 deaths [2]. In South Africa, no data is available for HPV associated head and neck cancer! By 2020, HPV will have caused more head and neck than cervical cancer cases, showing that we need to further investigate the viral mechanisms behind this disease.


10 tips to nail a journal club presentation

10 tips to nail a jc presentation.png

In this age where information is available at our fingertips, often in 140 characters or less, it is difficult to grab and keep a person’s attention. The supervisor who’s tapping their foot, browsing through their phone while you fumble through a presentation needs a reason to care about what you have to say.

Now if you’re anything like me, you’ve been running around, putting in your samples to PCR when your lab mate reminds you that it’s your turn to present at this week’s journal club! It completely slipped your mind!

Take your journal club presentation from cringeworthy to celebrated with these simple tips.


  1. Bank articles

    Keep a folder of articles that you find interesting during the year. You’ll be glad you did so when life in the lab gets overwhelming.

  2. Choose a current article

    To keep abreast of current research, choose an article that was published within the last six months at least. Give your audience a reason to attend your presentation and an opportunity to learn something new.

  3. Subscribe to science news sites

    Science news sites deliver bite-sized content for light lunchtime reading. You can keep up with exciting and innovative research without spending time scouring articles. You can always find the original published article cited in this news article to present to your journal club.

  4. Go outside your field

    Step outside your research comfort zone! Present on work conducted slightly out of your research field to expand your general knowledge.

  5. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

    Start your preparation in advance, to give yourself adequate time to familiarise yourself with the topic or new techniques. When the time comes for you to present, you will feel at ease knowing that you’ve put in the time.

  6. Get permission from your audience

    At the start of your presentation, ask questions that create dissonance in your audience’s mind to stir their curiosity. It is only then that you will have their permission to explain a new concept.

  7. Build an idea using metaphors

    Bring ideas to life using everyday analogies and metaphors. Make sure there is a golden thread running through your talk linking back to these original ideas.

  8. Less is more

    Deconstruct one major idea and give yourself enough time to explain it in depth. Present only the most important results. Clarify terms that may be unfamiliar to the audience and avoid jargon if presenting to a diverse audience.

  9. Create pretty slides

    Pretty is powerful when it comes to presentations! Text heavy slides make the brain rely more on the language side, leaving the audience overwhelmed. Rather use a single sentence with a powerful image. This will also limit you from reading from the slide, which can be sleep-inducing tedious! Relabel figures so headings are legible and use animated blocks to highlight sections within hieroglyphic-like tables.

  10. Execution!

    You’ve spent some time preparing for this presentation, make sure you deliver it with confidence! What’s the point in wasting not only your time but the audience’s as well and nobody leaves having learned something.

Finally, you’ve nailed your presentation if the audience can answer the following [1]:

  • What the research problem was?
  • The main piece of data to support the research findings.
  • Whether the authors were successful in answering their research questions.
What are your tips on nailing a journal club presentation? Leave me a comment, let’s have a discussion!


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Like DNA through a gel, so are the days of our lab…

Hello! Welcome to Live lab, love life! – anecdotes of life as a PhD student in medical virology.logo_2139248_web

As Einstein said,

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”.

I highly doubt my grandma would read this but nevertheless, I’m trying my hand at science communication and journalism; chronicling my research and struggles that go with chasing data (i.e. bands that make her dance) and translating daily science especially for my non science-y peeps, all with sprinkles of good vibes.