About 20 million Americans are living with it. Half of sexually active people will develop it. Most don't even know they have it. It's HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that's best known for its link to cervical cancer. But HPV can also affect throats and lungs. That's what happened to Ben Zehavi.
"I could feel that there is some kind of irritation on my vocal cord and I have to cough," said Zehavi.
Zehavi had a disease called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP). Benign tumors form on the vocal cords, trachea and lungs. It's caused by HPV. Until now, the only treatment was surgery to cut out the tumors.
"Those patients that have the worst, because it varies from one patient to another, might need surgery every three weeks just so they don't suffocate to death," said Bettie Steinberg, chief scientific officer, Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.
Steinberg is studying what could be an easy fix. Patients with RRP express a protein called COX-2. The arthritis drug Celebrex targets it. In the lab, Celebrex stopped the cells from growing and even killed some.
In a small study, three RRP patients responded well, and two are still disease-free. Celebrex can cause side effects but Steinberg says if her new, larger study shows the same results as the previous one: "There's no reason to think it wouldn't work for HPV infections in other tissues as well."
Zehavi was one of the three study participants. His vocal cords are clear and he's been in remission for five years.
RRP affects about 10,000 people in the U.S. It can be transmitted from a mother with HPV to her baby at birth, or it can be sexually transmitted. It's unknown why some people with HPV develop RRP and others don't.