Background: Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a cause of oropharyngeal cancer, but a role for HPV in the etiology of oral cavity squamous cell carcinomas (OCSCC) remains uncertain.
Methods: We sought to estimate the etiologic fraction for HPV among consecutive, incident OCSCC diagnosed from 2005 to 2011 at four North American hospitals. DNA and RNA purified from paraffin-embedded tumors were considered evaluable if positive for DNA and mRNA control genes by quantitative PCR. Fifteen high-risk (HR) HPV types were detected in tumors by consensus PCR followed by type-specific HR-HPV E6/7 oncogene expression by quantitative reverse-transcriptase PCR. P16 expression was evaluated by immunohistochemistry (IHC). A study of 400 cases allowed for precision to estimate an etiologic fraction of as low as 0% (97.5% confidence interval, 0-0.92%).
Results: Of 409 evaluable OCSCC, 24 (5.9%, 95%CI 3.6-8.2) were HR-HPV E6/7 expression positive; 3.7% (95%CI 1.8-5.5) for HPV16 and 2.2% (95%CI 0.8-3.6) for other HR-HPV types. HPV-positive tumors arose from throughout the oral cavity (floor of mouth [n=9], anterior tongue , alveolar process , hard palate , gingiva  and lip ) and were significantly associated with male gender, small tumor stage, poor tumor differentiation, and basaloid histopathology. P16 IHC had very good-to-excellent sensitivity (79.2%, 95%CI 57.9-92.9), specificity (93.0%, 95%CI 90.0-95.3), and negative-predictive value (98.6%, 95%CI 96.8-99.6), but poor positive-predictive value (41.3%, 95%CI 27.0-56.8) for HR-HPV E6/7 expression in OCSCC.
Conclusion: The etiologic fraction for HR-HPV in OCSCC was 5.9%. p16 IHC had poor positive predictive value for detection of HPV in these cancers.
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