Background: HPV/p16-positive head and neck cancers (HNSCC) show superior response to radiotherapy, compared with virus-negative tumours. Tumour hypoxia induces radioresistance and the randomised DAHANCA 5 trial found that the hypoxic cell radiosensitiser nimorazole significantly improved the outcome in HNSCC. Using p16-status as a retrospective stratification parameter, we aimed to assess the influence of p16-expression on the response to nimorazole in HNSCC.
Materials and methods: Pre-treatment tumour blocks were available from 331 of the 414 patients in the DAHANCA 5 trial and evaluated by immunohistochemistry for p16-expression. The influence of p16-expression on outcome was analysed as a function of treatment group (nimorazole/placebo) 5 years after radiotherapy.
Results: Overall, patients treated with nimorazole had significantly better loco-regional control than did those given placebo: hazard ratio (HR) 0.70 [95% CI 0.52-0.93]. Positive expression of p16 also significantly improved outcome after radiotherapy (0.41 [0.28-0.61]). In the subgroup of patients with p16-negative tumours, loco-regional failure was more frequent in the placebo group than in the nimorazole group (0.69 [0.50-0.95]). However, in the p16-positive group, patients treated with nimorazole had a loco-regional control rate similar to patients given placebo (0.93 [0.45-1.91]).
Conclusions: HPV/p16-expression significantly improved outcome after radiotherapy in HNSCC. Hypoxic modification improved outcome in HPV/p16-negative tumours but was of no significant benefit in HPV/p16-positive tumours, suggesting that hypoxic radioresistance may not be clinically relevant in these tumours.
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