Only certain types of cells in a woman's cervix are vulnerable to infection by human papillomavirus (HPV) and lead to cancer, new research suggests.
Research carried out in the US and Singapore shows that specific cells found only in a certain region of the cervix become cancerous when infected with the virus, which causes almost all cases of the disease.
The work, published in PNAS, shows that these cells have a unique 'signature' of genetic activity that distinguishes them from cells that do not go on to fuel cervical tumours.
This discovery could help doctors tell the difference between benign and potentially dangerous pre-cancerous lesions in the cervix.
Cervical cancer claims the lives of more 900 UK women every year, and infection with HPV is the root cause of the disease.
But exactly which cells are targeted by HPV - and where in the cervix cancer starts to develop - had remained elusive.
Dr Christopher Crum, from the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said that his team "discovered a discrete population of cells that are located in a specific area of the cervix that could be responsible for most, if not all, of HPV-associated cervical cancers".
The authors also speculate that "the removal of these cells in young women before they are subject to HPV infection or pre-cancerous changes could potentially reduce the risk of cervical cancer, but further research is needed to evaluate the benefits and risks of this potential therapy".
Jessica Harris, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said that the study adds to the understanding of the origins of cervical cancer and could help scientists learn more about how the disease develops and improve prevention efforts in future.
She also pointed out that vaccination and screening remain extremely effective ways of preventing HPV infection, cervical cell changes and cervical cancer, and screening alone is thought to save 5,000 lives each year.
"It's important that uptake of HPV vaccinations for year 8 girls remains high, and that women continue to take part in cervical screening," she added.
(29 Nov 2013)