A compound from a Japanese mushroom has been found to eradicate human papillomavirus (HPV) in cervical cancer cells, illuminating a potential treatment strategy against the disease that kills thousands of U.S. women every year.

Dr. Judith A. Smith, a researcher at the University of Texas and lead author of the new study, said that the mushroom extract active hexose correlated compound (AHCC) also appears to slow down tumor growth. "The results of this study were very encouraging," she said in a press release. "This study, initiated in 2008, shows that by itself AHCC has the potential to treat the HPV infection.”

Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Vaccines like Gardasil and Ceravix have proven highly effective in preventing the infection, but they only protect against some strains. New treatment methods are therefore crucial to bringing down incidence and mortality rates.

The new study, which was presented at the Society of Gynecological Oncology’s annual meeting in Tampa, Fla. shows that AHCC appears to shut down the infection both in vitro and in vivo. First, Smith and colleagues tested the compound in cell cultures isolated from cervical cancer patients. They then treated an HPV mouse model with a supplement derived from the mushroom extract.

In both experiments, AHCC was shown to eradicate the virus within 90 days. This opens up a range of opportunities for oncologists and drug researchers, Smith said. "AHCC is a common, well tolerated nutritional supplement that has been used for decades in Japan,” she explained. “I am very excited to be pursuing a nutritional approach to trying to find a treatment for HPV infections."

Eliminating Cervical Cancer

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 4,000 women die from cervical cancer each year. Like cancers of the pancreas and ovaries, the disease is often diagnosed with an abysmal prognosis, as it tends to go undetected until it spreads to neighboring tissue through a nefarious process called metastasis. Still, prevention methods like Pap smears and HPV vaccines have led to a significant reduction in cases over the past decades.

Smith’s paper is the latest in a growing number of studies aimed at improving current treatment and prevention protocols for HPV and cervical cancer. Another example is a review in PLoS Medicine published earlier this year, in which researchers from Queen Mary University in London suggest that current screening practices should not be limited to younger women.

Similarly, another study found that women with the highest risk of developing cervical cancer are also the least likely to be offered an HPV shot and follow through with it.