Background: Oncogenic human papillomaviruses (HPVs), especially HPV type 16 (HPV-16), cause anogenital epithelial cancers and are suspected of causing epithelial cancers of the head and neck.
Methods: To examine the relation between head and neck cancers and HPVs, we performed a nested case-control study within a joint Nordic cohort in which serum samples were collected from almost 900,000 subjects. Samples collected at enrollment from 292 persons in whom squamous-cell carcinoma of the head and neck developed, on average, 9.4 years after enrollment and from 1568 matched controls were analyzed for antibodies against HPV-16, HPV-18, HPV-33, and HPV-73 and for cotinine levels as a marker of smoking habits. Polymerase-chain-reaction (PCR) analyses for HPV DNA were performed in tumor tissue from 160 of the study patients with cancer.
Results: After adjustment for cotinine levels, the odds ratio for squamous-cell carcinoma of the head and neck in subjects who were seropositive for HPV-16 was 2.2 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.4 to 3.4). No increased risk was observed for other HPV types. Fifty percent of oropharyngeal and 14 percent of tongue cancers contained HPV-16 DNA, according to PCR analysis.
Conclusions: HPV-16 infection may be a risk factor for squamous-cell carcinoma of the head and neck.