As researchers have found that the majority of throat cancers are linked to HPV, the human papillomavirus, they have also found that patients with HPV-positive cancer tend to respond better to treatments than those with HPV-negative cancers. In fact, research is ongoing to see if reducing the intensity of these treatments in HPV-positive patients could result in equally good outcomes with fewer toxic side effects.
But there’s a problem in the meantime: Multiple methods of detecting HPV are used at hospitals throughout the country, with some tests missing several high-risk HPV variations.
“It is critically important to verify high-risk HPV in patients’ tumors prior to deciding on therapy,” says Heather Walline, Ph.D., research fellow in otolaryngology at the University of Michigan Health System and lead author of a new study published in JAMA Otolaryngology.
“Many HPV-positive head and neck cancer patients are young, and the side effects of our current treatments adversely affect their quality of life. If surgery alone or surgery plus radiation is less toxic but equally effective, some patients may be able to avoid some of these side effects,” she says.
Walline and colleagues from the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center looked at the three most common tests to detect HPV and found that one called PCR-MA most consistently identified all of the high-risk types of HPV with the fewest false-positives. The authors recommend that this test be consistently used.
“Many clinicians and researchers are under the mistaken impression that HPV16 is the only HPV type important in head and neck cancer. We have shown that other high-risk types are also present in these tumors,” Walline says. “Furthermore, the current HPV vaccines target high-risk types HPV16 and HPV18. We suspect that other high-risk HPV types may begin to emerge as major players as the effect of the vaccine begins to eliminate HPV16 and HPV18 as cancer threats.”