Human papillomavirus and oropharynx cancer: biology, detection and clinical implications

Laryngoscope. 2010 Sep;120(9):1756-72. doi: 10.1002/lary.20936.


Objectives: To review evidence for the role of human papillomavirus (HPV) in the etiology of oropharyngeal cancers, methods of viral detection, and the resulting clinical implications.

Study design: Contemporary review.

Methods: Published journal articles identified through PubMed and conference proceedings were reviewed.

Results: HPV-associated squamous cell carcinomas represent a distinct disease entity from carcinogen-associated squamous cell carcinomas. HPV oncoproteins lead to mucosal cell transformation through well-defined mechanisms. Different methods of detecting HPV exist with variable levels of sensitivity and specificity for biologically active virus. Although virus is detected in a number of head and neck subsites, studies demonstrate improved outcomes in HPV-associated carcinoma of the oropharynx only. The cell cycle regulatory protein p16 is upregulated by biologically active HPV and serves as a biomarker of improved response to therapy.

Conclusions: HPV-associated squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx is a biologically distinct entity from carcinogen-associated carcinoma. Understanding the molecular mechanisms behind the improved outcomes in patients with HPV-associated oropharyngeal carcinoma may lead to novel therapeutics for patients with carcinogen-associated carcinomas.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / genetics*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / therapy
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / virology*
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / genetics
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / pathology
  • DNA, Viral / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral / genetics
  • Humans
  • Oncogene Proteins, Viral / genetics*
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms / therapy
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms / virology*
  • Papillomavirus E7 Proteins / genetics
  • Papillomavirus Infections / diagnosis
  • Papillomavirus Infections / genetics*
  • Papillomavirus Infections / therapy
  • Papillomavirus Infections / virology*
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics


  • DNA, Viral
  • Oncogene Proteins, Viral
  • Papillomavirus E7 Proteins
  • RNA, Messenger