A team of researchers at Rutgers University will analyze tissue samples from 9/11 first responders to determine whether they face a greater risk of throat and tongue cancer related to human papillomavirus).

A firefighter's shirt used at Ground Zero on September 11 is viewed during a tour the National September 11 Memorial Museum (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The scientists are already aware of a link between HPV and these cancers, but they hope to learn whether the association is heightened in those who were exposed to toxic dust and debris in the aftermath of the World Trade Center terror attacks in 2001.

According to co-principal investigator Dr. Mark Einstein, chair of the Department of OB/GYN and Women's Health at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, about 80 percent of all people will get an HPV infection at some point in their life. It is most commonly transmitted through sex, and carriers don't generally get sick or even present symptoms.

While HPV is common, related cancers are not, Einstein said.

"What we don't understand is — why is it only certain people get cancers that are associated with HPV, like head and neck cancers?" Einstein said.

"A high amount" of head and neck tissue samples are available through the World Trade Center Biorepository at Mount Sinai in New York, according to Einstein. The team will also analyze control samples, from University Hospital in Newark, of non-9/11 responders.

"We have this unfortunate unique opportunity with people who had a high environmental exposure to see whether or not these tumors were more likely caused by environmental exposure or the HPV," Einstein said. "In which case we might want to consider some kind of screening for them, or something else. That's further down the line."

The team also aims to better understand the scientific causal relationship between HPV and head and neck cancers. The study could help discover opportunities for early detection and better treatment options.

Einstein noted the number of HPV-related throat and tongue cancers is expected to surpass HPV-related cervical cancers by 2020. The survival rate is "pretty good," he said, if caught early, but diminishes if the cancer metastasizes elsewhere.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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