Head and Neck Cancers Coverage from Every Angle
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Using Genetic Biomarker to Predict Outcome in HPV-Related Oropharyngeal Cancer

By: Lauren Harrison, MS
Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2019

In a study published in JCI Insight, Curtis Pickering, PhD, of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, and colleagues identified a prognostic biomarker for human papillomavirus (HPV) in patients with oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma. This gene signature seems to be associated with treatment response and survival in this patient population.

“There’s a desire among clinicians to de-escalate therapy to lessen severe side effects. However, we currently don’t have good biomarkers to safely determine which patients are candidates for de-escalation,” Dr. Pickering stated in an MD Anderson news release.

Tumors from 80 oropharyngeal cancers in The Cancer Genome Atlas were examined based on their level of HPV gene expression. Two distinct groups were identified within the HPV-positive tumors, leading to identification of 582 genes that could stratify tumors into high-HPV, low-HPV, and HPV-negative. Patients with higher levels of HPV expression typically respond better to treatment. A total of 38 genes were found to distinguish the HPV-high group from the HPV-low group, and 2 HPV function genes were significantly different between the two groups. These two genes (E1^E4) were correlated with radiation sensitivity, which was consistent with patient responses.

Researchers also evaluated this biomarker in two independent groups of HPV-related oropharyngeal and cervical cancers. Their gene panel was prognostic of survival and seemed to be a better predictor than clinical factors such as smoking status and tumor size. The team believes they may be able to narrow down their biomarker to one gene with similar prognostic ability.

“What I’m hoping is we’ve found some new fundamental aspects of HPV biology related to the carcinogenic process, the progression of the tumor, and response to therapy,” said Dr. Pickering. “If we’re able to validate this in future studies, it could be incredibly clinically useful across several HPV-related tumor types.”

Disclosure: The study authors reported no conflicts of interest.

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