Background: Human papillomavirus 16 infection has been proven to be associated with oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) and is probably the main reason of the reported increase in the incidence. The role of high-risk (HR) HPV for carcinogenesis of other sites in the head and neck awaits confirmation. With the aim to evaluate the prevalence of HPV infection and the reliability of different diagnostic tools in SCCs of different sites, 109 consecutive untreated head and neck SCCs were enrolled, and fresh tumour samples collected.
Methods: Human papillomavirus DNA was detected by Digene Hybrid Capture 2 (HC2). Human papillomavirus E6 and E7 mRNA were detected by NucliSENS EasyQ HPVv1. P16 expression was evaluated by immunohistochemistry.
Results: In all, 12.84% of cases were infected by HR genotypes and 1.84% by low-risk genotypes. Human papillomavirus 16 accounted for 87% of HR infections. The overall agreement between DNA and RNA detection is 99.1%. Although p16 expression clearly correlates with HPV infection (P=0.0051), the inter-rater agreement is poor (k=0.27). The oropharynx showed the highest HR HPV infection rate (47.6%) and was also the only site in which p16 immunohistochemistry revealed to be a fair, but not excellent, diagnostic assay (κ=0.61).
Conclusion: The prognostic role of HR HPV infection in oropharyngeal oncology, with its potential clinical applications, underscores the need for a consensus on the most appropriate detection methods. The present results suggest that viral mRNA detection could be the standard for fresh samples, whereas DNA detection could be routinely used in formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded samples.