Virus-induced cancers of the skin and mucosa: Are we dealing with "smoking guns" or "smoke and mirrors" in the operating theatre?

Peter K. C. Goon, Patrick K. Y. Goon, Eunice K. H. Tan, Robin A. F. Crawford, Nick J. Levell, Holger Sudhoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Introduction: Human papillomavirus (HPV) alone is thought to cause ~610,000 cases of cancer per year, and is the dominant aetiological agent for ano-genital (esp. cervical) and head and neck cancers (esp. oropharyngeal). Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV) is a more recently discovered virus which causes Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare but highly aggressive skin malignancy.  

Methods: We explored the available published evidence to see if transmission of live HPV or MCV virus in smoke generated by laser or diathermy was feasible, and would pose an infection risk. Long-term infection with such carcinogenic viruses would then pose an increased risk for the development of virus-induced cancers in medical personnel.  

Results: The morphological structures of both HPV and MCV are very similar, and the size, external capsids and genomic structures show striking similarity. Both viruses have a non-enveloped external protein capsid consisting of 72 capsomeres, and a double-stranded DNA core. Sizes of both viruses range from 50 to 60 nm. There are now recent data demonstrating live and infectious HPV in smoke, and that these viruses can be used to infect cells in vitro. Further, anecdotal reports of virus transmission leading to disease causation in the production of respiratory airway viral warts (benign disease), and, finally, reports of HPV-induced oropharyngeal carcinoma (malignant disease) in two gynaecological surgeons as an occupational health hazard have been published recently.  

Conclusion: There is now sufficient evidence to support the hypotheses that live infectious carcinogenic viruses can be transmitted via smoke generated from surgical procedures, and, in rare instances, actually cause significant disease. Protective measures such as smoke extraction and airway protection should be instituted for all healthcare personnel, particularly those with multiple repeated exposures such as gynaecological surgeons.  

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)249-254
Number of pages6
JournalDermatology and Therapy
Issue number2
Early online date8 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017


  • Benign tumours
  • HPV
  • Human papillomavirus
  • Malignant tumours
  • MCV
  • Merkel cell polyomavirus
  • Smoke

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