Background: High-risk human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are etiologic agents for anogenital tract cancers and have been detected in head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs). We investigated, retrospectively, an etiologic role for HPVs in a large series of patients with HNSCC.
Methods: Tumor tissues from 253 patients with newly diagnosed or recurrent HNSCC were tested for the presence of HPV genome by use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based assays, Southern blot hybridization, and in situ hybridization. The viral E6 coding region was sequenced to confirm the presence of tumor-specific viral isolates. Exons 5-9 of the TP53 gene were sequenced from 166 specimens. The hazard of death from HNSCC in patients with and without HPV-positive tumors was determined by proportional hazards regression analysis.
Results: HPV was detected in 62 (25%) of 253 cases (95% confidence interval [CI] = 19%-30%). High-risk, tumorigenic type HPV16 was identified in 90% of the HPV-positive tumors. HPV16 was localized specifically by in situ hybridization within the nuclei of cancer cells in preinvasive, invasive, and lymph node disease. Southern blot hybridization patterns were consistent with viral integration. Poor tumor grade (odds ratio [OR] = 2.4; 95% CI = 1.2- 4.9) and oropharyngeal site (OR = 6.2; 95% CI = 3.1-12.1) independently increased the probability of HPV presence. As compared with HPV-negative oropharyngeal cancers, HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers were less likely to occur among moderate to heavy drinkers (OR = 0.17; 95% CI = 0.05-0.61) and smokers (OR = 0.16; 95% CI = 0.02-1.4), had a characteristic basaloid morphology (OR = 18.7; 95% CI = 2.1-167), were less likely to have TP53 mutations (OR = 0.06; 95% CI = 0.01-0. 36), and had improved disease-specific survival (hazard ratio [HR] = 0.26; 95% CI = 0.07-0.98). After adjustment for the presence of lymph node disease (HR = 2.3; 95% CI = 1.4- 3.8), heavy alcohol consumption (HR = 2.6; 95% CI = 1.4-4.7), and age greater than 60 years old (HR = 1.4; 95% CI = 0.8-2.3), all patients with HPV-positive tumors had a 59% reduction in risk of death from cancer when compared with HPV-negative HNSCC patients (HR = 0.41; 95% CI = 0.20-0.88).
Conclusions: These data extend recent molecular and epidemiologic studies and strongly suggest that HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers comprise a distinct molecular, clinical, and pathologic disease entity that is likely causally associated with HPV infection and that has a markedly improved prognosis.