Purpose: Current assessment of lymph node metastasis in patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma is not accurate enough to prevent overtreatment. The aim of this study was validation of a gene expression signature for distinguishing metastasizing (N+) from nonmetastasizing (N0) squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity (OSCC) and oropharynx (OPSCC) in a large multicenter cohort, using a diagnostic DNA microarray in a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments/International Organization for Standardization-approved laboratory.
Methods: A multigene signature, previously reported as predictive for the presence of lymph node metastases in OSCC and OPSCC, was first re-evaluated and trained on 94 samples using generic, whole-genome, DNA microarrays. Signature genes were then transferred to a dedicated diagnostic microarray using the same technology platform. Additional samples (n=222) were collected from all head and neck oncologic centers in the Netherlands and analyzed with the diagnostic microarray. Human papillomavirus status was determined by real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction.
Results: The negative predictive value (NPV) of the diagnostic signature on the entire validation cohort (n=222) was 72%. The signature performed well on the most relevant subset of early-stage (cT1-T2N0) OSCC (n=101), with an NPV of 89%.
Conclusion: Combining current clinical assessment with the expression signature would decrease the rate of undetected nodal metastases from 28% to 11% in early-stage OSCC. This should be sufficient to enable clinicians to refrain from elective neck treatment. A new clinical decision model that incorporates the expression signature is therefore proposed for testing in a prospective study, which could substantially improve treatment for this group of patients.