A hormone-like molecule in semen may encourage the development of cervical cancer, British scientists have said.
A team at the Medical Research Council (MRC) has found that exceptionally high levels of prostaglandin, a molecule which behaves like a hormone and is found in semen, can fuel the growth of tumours.
Prostaglandin occurs naturally in the cells of the womb lining, where it regulates cell growth and causes the lining to thicken or shed cells, depending on the stage of the menstrual cycle.
However, the levels of prostaglandin found in semen are around 1,000 times higher than the natural level in the womb and the MRC has suggested that women who are at risk of cervical or womb cancer should take precautions in order to prevent the presence of semen in the womb.
"Sexually active women who are at risk of cervical or uterine cancer should encourage their partners to wear a condom to prevent increased exposure to the prostaglandins that might make their condition worse," said research leader, Dr Henry Jabbour.
Professor John Toy, medical director at Cancer Research UK, said that, although interesting, the research holds little relevance for women who have already been diagnosed with cervical cancer.
"The likelihood of any unprotected sex affecting the successful outcome of their treatment is considered slight," he commented.
"The most important thing that women can do at this time to prevent cervical cancer from developing is to go for regular cervical smear tests."
Cervical cancer is the 11th most fatal type of cancer for women in the UK, according to Department of Health statistics, although screening programmes are now helping to detect early-stage tumours so that patients can start cancer treatment before the disease becomes life-threatening.