Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) comprise a diverse group, and have different epithelial tropisms and life-cycle strategies. Many HPVs are classified as low-risk, as they are only very rarely associated with neoplasia or cancer in the general population. These HPVs typically cause inapparent/inconspicuous infections, or benign papillomas, which can persist for months or years, but which are eventually resolved by the host's immune system. Low-risk HPVs are difficult to manage in immunosuppressed people and in individuals with genetic predispositions, and can give rise to papillomatosis, and in rare instances, to cancer. The high-risk HPV types are, by contrast, a cause of several important human cancers, including almost all cases of cervical cancer, a large proportion of other anogenital cancers and a growing number of head and neck tumours. The high-risk HPV types constitute a subset of the genus Alphapapillomavirus that are prevalent in the general population, and in most individuals cause only inconspicuous oral and genital lesions. Cancer progression is associated with persistent high-risk HPV infection and with deregulated viral gene expression, which leads to excessive cell proliferation, deficient DNA repair, and the accumulation of genetic damage in the infected cell. Although their life-cycle organisation is broadly similar to that of the low-risk HPV types, the two groups differ significantly in their capacity to drive cell cycle entry and cell proliferation in the basal/parabasal cell layers. This is thought to be linked, at least in part, to different abilities of the high- and low-risk E6 proteins to modulate the activity of p53 and PDZ-domain proteins, and the differential ability of the E7 proteins to target the several different members of the retinoblastoma protein family. This article forms part of a special supplement entitled "Comprehensive Control of HPV Infections and Related Diseases" Vaccine Volume 30, Supplement 5, 2012.
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