At least one version of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which leads to most cases of cervical cancer, evolved in humans as a result of sex with Neanderthal, a new study shows.
"There is not a more carcinogenic agent that causes cancer in humans than HPV, especially HPV16," said Robert Burk, who led the research.
As a medical geneticist Burk wanted to understand the genetics that drive the development of cancer. But there wasn’t a clear path to study how HPV contributes to the disease. So, he and his team began collecting as much information about the virus as possible.
In research published last year, Burk and colleagues analyzed the genetic sequences of HPV16 viruses from thousands of individuals and found that few women shared an identical form of the virus. It’s an indication that the virus has a knotty evolutionary past, and understanding might help shed light on why it can go on to cause cancer in some cases and not in others.
"It became clear that trying to study the viral genome and its association with cancer had to be viewed through the eyes of evolution," Burk said.
So, in the new study, Burk started with some of human’s closest evolutionary relatives, monkeys. The researchers isolated papillomaviruses from the oral, perianal and genital areas of squirrel and rhesus monkeys. When the scientists then compared the virus genomes, they found that the viruses that were most similar to each other came from the same parts of the body, meaning before papillomaviruses took up residence as cancer-causing parasites in humans, they first adapted to particular places in the body. The viruses then evolved within these niches for at least 40 million years.
The finding suggests “genetic [versions] associated with cervix cancer in Northern European women appear to trace back to [the transfer of] Neanderthal genes through sexual intercourse between modern humans and archaic hominids,” Burk said. But it also “starts to provide an explanation for the differential carcinogenic potential of HPV16.”
 Chen et al: Niche adaptation and viral transmission of human papillomaviruses from archaic hominins to modern humans in PLoS Pathogens - 2018
 Mirabello et al: HPV16 E7 Genetic Conservation Is Critical to Carcinogenesis in Cell - 2017