Head and neck cancers (HNCs) are a highly heterogeneous group of tumours that are associated with diverse clinical outcomes. Recent evidence has demonstrated that human papillomavirus (HPV) is involved in up to 25% of HNCs; particularly in the oropharyngeal carcinoma (OPC) subtype where it can account for up to 60% of such cases. HPVs are double-stranded DNA viruses that infect epithelial cells; numerous HPV subtypes, including 16, 18, 31, 33, and 35, drive epithelial cell transformation and tumourigenesis. HPV positive (HPV+) HNC represents a distinct molecular and clinical entity from HPV negative (HPV-) disease; the biological basis for which remains to be fully elucidated. HPV positivity is strongly correlated with a significantly superior outcome; indicating that such tumours should have a distinct management approach. This review focuses on the recent scientific and clinical investigation of HPV+ HNC. In particular, we discuss the importance of molecular and clinical evidence for defining the role of HPV in HNC, and the clinical impact of HPV status as a biomarker for HNC.
Keywords: (HPV+); HPV negative (HPV−); biomarker; head and neck cancer; head and neck squamous cell carcinoma; human papillomavirus; microRNA; oropharyngeal carcinoma; prognosis.