Have HPV-related oral cancer? The robot will see you now

In a Mayo Clinic study, robotic surgery appeared less debilitating than traditional, more invasive surgery and radiation therapy. The surgeons now plan to offer robot docs as a primary treatment.

Dr. Eric Moore Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

With oral sex on the rise, oral cancer is also up, and by as much as 25 percent in the past few years alone--particularly among otherwise healthy 30- to 50-year-old nonsmokers, according to Mayo Clinic researchers. That's the bad news.

The goods news is that this rise is largely attributed to types of oral cancer caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which tend to be less aggressive and more responsive to treatment than the oral cancers traditionally seen in older patients who have been smoking and/or drinking for decades. What's more, the most common, called oropharyngeal cancer, appears to be highly treatable by surgical robots.

Specifically, Mayo Clinic researchers have found that more than 92 percent of patients with oropharyngeal cancer followed for two years post-surgery survived, and more than 96 percent were able to swallow a normal diet (without a gastrostomy feeding tube) within three weeks of surgery.

These results were "probably almost as much of a matter that these cancers are HPV-mediated for the most part and they respond much better to treatment," says study author and head and neck surgeon Eric Moore in a news release. He says that the important finding of this study, published this week in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, is that the treatment "preserved patients' ability to swallow and their speech performance was excellent."

Moore and his team followed 66 patients who underwent transoral robotic surgery via the da Vinci robotic surgical system, which allows surgeons to use a bot's arms and cameras to see, reach, and remove tumors from otherwise hard-to-reach areas of the mouth and throat.

Traditional surgical techniques, on the other hand, can require cutting and then reconstructing the jawbone, neck, and tongue, making the fast recovery time of patients undergoing robotic surgery particularly exciting.

Next up is to extend this study to a larger population at several institutions over a longer period of time to see whether these positive results hold.

For now, Moore's team is so confident in these results that, for those who don't want to be randomized into a Mayo Clinic trial, robotic surgery will be the primary treatment offered.

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