Background: P16 and p53 protein expression, and high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV-HR) types have been associated with survival in head and neck cancer (HNC). Evidence suggests that multiple molecular pathways need to be targeted to improve the poor prognosis of HNC. This study examined the individual and joint effects of tumor markers for differences in predicting HNC survival. P16 and p53 expression were detected from formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissues by immunohistochemical staining. HPV DNA was detected by PCR and DNA sequencing in 237 histologically confirmed HNC patients.
Results: Overexpression of p16 (p16+) and p53 (p53+) occurred in 38% and 48% of HNC tumors, respectively. HPV-HR was detected in 28% of tumors. Worse prognosis was found in tumors that were p53+ (disease-specific mortality: adjusted hazard ratios, HR = 1.9, 95% CI: 1.04-3.4) or HPV- (overall survival: adj. HR = 2.1, 1.1-4.3) but no association in survival was found by p16 status. Compared to the molecular marker group with the best prognosis (p16+/p53-/HPV-HR: referent), the p16-/p53+/HPV- group had the lowest overall survival (84% vs. 60%, p < 0.01; HR = 4.1, 1.7-9.9) and disease-specific survival (86% vs. 66%, p < 0.01; HR = 4.0, 1.5-10.7). Compared to the referent, the HRs of the other six joint biomarker groups ranged from 1.6-3.4 for overall mortality and 0.9-3.9 for disease-specific mortality.
Conclusion: The p16/p53/HPV joint groups showed greater distinction in clinical outcomes compared to results based on the individual biomarkers alone. This finding suggests that assessing multiple molecular markers in HNC patients will better predict the diverse outcomes and potentially the type of treatment targeted to those markers.