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HPV-16 virus a ‘significant cause’ of oropharyngeal cancer

Infection with the HPV-16 virus is linked to a third of oropharyngeal cancers, according to UK researchers.

The study

The study included 638 patients with head and neck cancer (HNCs) and 300 with oesophageal cancer and 1,599 controls. The median time between blood sample collection and diagnosis was 6.3 years and antibodies against the E6 protein for HPV 6, 11, 16, 18,31,33,45 and 52 was measured in the plasma of cancer cases and controls.

The findings

The analysis showed a significant association between testing seropositive against HPV 16 E6 in those with oropharyngeal cancer and controls, with rates of 35% and 0.6% respectively. The results were observed for more than 10 years before cancer diagnosis and no similar association was seen with other cancer sites. Individuals with oropharyngeal cancer who were HPV 16 E6 seropositive were more likely to never smoked (42.6%) compared to those HPV 16 E6 seronegative (5.9%) and similar to controls (39.5%). They were also older at the time of diagnosis and had a higher BMI compared to those seronegative.

What this means for GPs

Dr Ruth Travis, one of the authors of the study and Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Oxford, said: ‘These striking results provide some evidence that HPV16 infection may be a significant cause of oropharyngeal cancer.’

JCO 2013: 31: 2708-15

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