Author: Mary Ann Moon
Testing for the presence of human papillomavirus DNA alone, especially using polymerase chain reaction methods, is not adequate to identify which head and neck squamous cell carcinomas are caused by the virus, according to two studies published online Sept. 18 in Cancer Research.
Identifying HPV-driven malignancies is important because they respond better to treatment and have better outcomes than those unrelated to HPV infection. Indeed, treatment of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) may soon be guided by the tumor’s HPV status, since trials are now underway to determine whether de-escalation of chemo- and radiotherapy is safe and effective in such patients.
At present, however, the biomarkers that are best suited to making this identification are unclear.
Case Series Assesses Biomarkers
In the first study, researchers assessed the usefulness of four biomarkers in determining which HNSCCs in a case series were driven by HPV. They began by examining fresh-frozen tumor biopsy samples from 199 German adults diagnosed as having oropharyngeal squamous cell cancer between 1990 and 2008.
The four biomarkers were HPV-16 viral load, viral oncogene RNA (E6 and E7), p16INK4a, and RNA patterns similar to those characteristic of cervical carcinomas (CxCa RNA), said Dr. Dana Holzinger of the German Cancer Research Center at Heidelberg (Germany) University and her associates.
The simple presence of HPV DNA in a tumor sample was found to be a poor indicator of prognosis, likely because it often signaled past HPV infections or recent oral exposure, rather than active HPV infection that progressed to malignancy, the investigators said (Cancer Res. 2012 Sept. 18).
Instead, “we showed that high viral load and a cancer-specific pattern of viral gene expression are most suited to identify patients with HPV-driven tumors among patients with oropharyngeal cancer. Viral expression pattern is a completely new marker in this field, and viral load has hardly been analyzed before,” Dr. Holzinger said in a press statement accompanying the publication of these findings.
“Once standardized assays for these markers, applicable in routine clinical laboratories, are established, they will allow precise identification” of cancers that are or are not HPV-driven, which will in turn influence prognosis and treatment, she added.
Results Back Combination Approach
In the second study, Dr. Caihua Liang of Brown University, Providence, R.I., and her associates examined 488 HNSCC samples as well as serum samples collected in a population-based study in the Boston area during 1999-2003.
As in the first study, these investigators found that the mere presence of HPV-16 DNA in these tumors, particularly when detected by PCR analysis, did not accurately predict overall survival or progression-free survival.
Instead, “our study strongly suggests that the combination of detection of HPV-16 DNA in HNSCC tumors [plus] p16 immunostaining with E6/E7 antibodies represents the most clinically valuable surrogate marker for the identification of patients . . . who have a better prognosis,” they said (Cancer Res. 2012 Sept. 28).
“Assessment of HPV DNA using polymerase chain reaction methods as a biomarker in individual head and neck cancers is a poor predictor of outcome, and is also poorly associated with antibody response indicative of exposure and/or infection by HPV,” senior author Dr. Karl T. Kelsey added in the press statement.
“We may not be diagnosing these tumors as accurately and precisely as we need to for adjusting treatments,” said Dr. Kelsey, a professor in the department of epidemiology and the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at Brown University.
Dr. Holzinger’s study was funded in part by the European Commission, BMBG/HGAF-Canceropole Grand-Est, and the German Research Foundation. Her associates reported ties to Qiagen and Roche. Dr. Liang’s study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute, and one associate reported ties to Bristol-Myers Squibb.