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IUDs may do more than prevent pregnancy. They could help fight cervical cancer.

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Each year, cervical cancer claims the lives of about 200,000 women, according to the World Health Organization.

A small, T-shaped device commonly known as the IUD could help change that, based on new research published in the Obstetrics & Gynecology journal.

Dr. Victoria Cortessis, an associate professor of clinical preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, spearheaded the research examining the role of IUDs in preventing cervical cancer. Her study, "Intrauterine Device Use and Cervical Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis," looked at the quantitative data of 16 previous observational studies that also attempted to address the same question: what is a woman's risk of developing cancer if she has or has not used an intrauterine device?

"The group of women who had used an IUD appeared to be at lower risk, so less frequently had developed cervical cancer than women who had no used an IUD."
Dr. Victoria Cortessis

Cortessis acknowledged that the recently published study came with certain provisions, and that more research will need to be conducted to determine the exact relationship between IUDs and cervical cancer. She said, for example, that the quantitative data she and her colleagues extracted from the 16 studies were published between the 1980s and early 2000s. That means the data likely includes an examination of the role of non-hormonal IUDs--not hormonal IUDs-- in reducing the risk of cervical cancer. She also said that further research needs to explore the duration of use to determine if time has anything to do with cancer risk.

Nonetheless, Cortessis added that it would be "extraordinarily unlikely" that the results of the study were a simply a chance discovery. She and her colleagues combed through more than 400 observational studies to chose the 16 most reliable. Ultimately, her study looked at data from more than 12,000 women.

So how exactly does an IUD possibly reduce cervical cancer risk?

When the IUD is placed in the uterus, it results in an inflammatory response, which, Cortessis explained, is an immune response.

"We suspect that the inflammatory response may somehow prevent cervical cancer," she said.

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The T-shaped device results in the manipulation of body tissue, which is where HPV--the virus that commonly causes cancer--lives.

"There's some small wounds that happen, some bruising an so forth, and that may be adequate to evoke an immune response that will remove the persistent infection," Cortessis added.

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Just two HPV strains cause 70 percent of cervical cancer and precancerous cervical lesions, according to the World Health Organization. Most women, about 90 percent, have the natural ability to rid the HPV infection from their body. However, the persistent infection of HPV could be fatal for the 10 percent of women who don't have the necessary immune response to rid the infection.

The non-contraceptive benefit of the IUD could help the 10 percent of women, in addition to those who never received the HPV vaccine, which wards off the infection, due to age or access.

"We're looking at 30, 40, 50 years of women remaining at risk because they couldn't be vaccinated because the vaccines didn't exist, and probably even more than that in the developing world."
Dr. Victoria Cortessis

Cortessis said that about 2 percent of girls in the developing world who qualified to receive the vaccination never did, likely because of inadequate resources. The IUD could help reduce the risk of those young women, as well, she continued.

IUDs may certainly never become the primary way of reducing cervical cancer, but it could prove lifesaving to a generation of women around the world.

"We don't know when there will be enough women vaccinated in the developing world that the vaccine's going to have an impact, but we know it's decades from now."

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