Serum MicroRNAs as Xerostomia Biomarkers in Patients With Oropharyngeal Cancer Undergoing Radiation Therapy

Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2021 Dec 1;111(5):1237-1249. doi: 10.1016/j.ijrobp.2021.07.008. Epub 2021 Jul 16.


Purpose: Severe xerostomia is noted in the majority of patients irradiated for oropharyngeal cancer. Extracellular microRNAs (miRNAs) may serve as effective tools allowing prediction of radiation-related toxicity. The aim of this study was to create an efficient prognostic miRNA-based test for severe, patient-rated xerostomia 3 months after primary treatment.

Methods and materials: This prospective study enrolled patients with oropharyngeal cancer treated between 2016 and 2018 in 3 centers in Poland. The primary endpoint was severe (grade ≥3) xerostomia as assessed by the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer H&N-35 questionnaires. Initially, a group of 10 patients with severe xerostomia was randomly selected and matched with a comparative group of 10 patients without severe xerostomia. Samples were collected before radiation therapy, after receiving 20 Gy, and within 24 hours after treatment completion. Quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction arrays (QIAGEN, Hilden, Germany) were used to quantify expression levels of 752 miRNAs in the serum at all timepoints. The resulting logistic-regression based model was validated in additional 60 patients: 30 with grade >3 xerostomia and 30 without.

Results: Of 152 eligible patients, we successfully recruited 111 patients. Severe xerostomia 3 months after treatment was reported by 63 patients (56.8%). Mean dose delivered to parotid glands was higher in both the exploratory and validation cohort. The model based on miR-185-5p and miR-425-5p expression levels measured before the start of radiation therapy had an area under the curve of 0.96 (95% confidence interval, 0.88-1.00). The model based on the same miRNAs remained robust when parameters were measured after 20 Gy (area under the curve 0.90; 95% confidence interval, 0.75-1.00). These results were confirmed in the validation group. In the validation group, preradiation therapy model application yielded 73.3% sensitivity and 80.0% specificity. In the samples taken after 20 Gy, the same 2 miRNAs yielded 67.7% sensitivity and 72.4% specificity. The model including pretreatment miR-185-5p and miR-425-5p levels together with mean parotid dose yielded 90.0% sensitivity and 80.0% specificity. In the validation cohort, this model yielded 80.6% sensitivity and 55.2% specificity. The model based on miRNA levels measured after 20 Gy and mean parotid dose had 80.0% sensitivity and 100% specificity in the exploratory group. In the validation cohort its performance fell to 71.0% sensitivity and 58.6% specificity.

Conclusions: Serum expression levels of miR-425-5p and miR-185-5p measured before the start of radiation therapy or during therapy (after 20 Gy) had significant prognostic value for the occurrence of severe xerostomia 3 months after treatment completion. The variability explained by miRNAs appears to be, at least partially, independent from that related to the dosimetric data.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Humans
  • MicroRNAs
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms* / radiotherapy
  • Prospective Studies
  • Radiation Injuries / genetics
  • Xerostomia* / etiology


  • Biomarkers
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • MicroRNAs