• Viral doubling time;
  • virologic model;
  • cervical intraepithelial neoplasia;
  • liquid-based cytology leftover;
  • real-time quantitative PCR


Persistent high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is strongly associated with the development of high-grade cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or cancer (CIN3+). However, HPV infection is common and usually transient. Viral load measured at a single time-point is a poor predictor of the natural history of HPV infection. The profile of viral load evolution over time could distinguish HPV infections with carcinogenic potential from infections that regress. A case-cohort natural history study was set-up using a Belgian laboratory database processing more than 100,000 liquid cytology specimens annually. All cytology leftovers were submitted to real-time PCR testing identifying E6/E7 genes of 17 HPV types, with viral load expressed as HPV copies/cell. Samples from untreated women who developed CIN3+ (n = 138) and women with transient HPV infection (n = 601) who contributed at least three viral load measurements were studied. Only single-type HPV infections were selected. The changes in viral load over time were assessed by the linear regression slope for the productive and/or clearing phase of infection in women developing CIN3+ and women with transient infection respectively. Transient HPV infections generated similar increasing (0.21 copies/cell/day) and decreasing (−0.28 copies/cell/day) viral load slopes. In HPV infections leading to CIN3+, the viral load increased almost linearly with a slope of 0.0028 copies/cell/day. Difference in slopes between transient infections and infections leading to CIN3+ was highly significant (< .0001). Serial type-specific viral load measurements predict the natural history of HPV infections and could be used to triage women in HPV-based cervical cancer screening.