HPV in head and neck cancer

International HPV Awareness Day - 4th March

Human papillomaviruses on surface of skin or mucous membrane, a virus which causes warts located mainly on hands and feet. Some strains infect genitals and can cause cervical cancer. 3D illustration

Over 80% of people will get HPV (human papilloma virus) at some point in their lives. It is the world’s most common sexually transmitted infection. Most HPV infections don’t cause symptoms but some can lead to life-threatening cancers.

HPV is the cause of almost all cervical cancers in women. What many people don’t know is that it can also cause cancers of the vulva and vagina in women, cancer of the penis in men and cancers of the anus, head and neck in both sexes.

4th March, International HPV Awareness Day is all about increasing awareness to promote progress on HPV prevention, screening and management of HPV related diseases.

As part of International HPV awareness day, we wanted to bring to light the role of HPV in head and neck cancer. It is thought that HPV is involved in up to 25% of all head and neck cancers, and this number is increasing.

For a particular subtype, oropharyngeal (middle of the throat including the tonsils and base of the tongue) cancer, HPV is the leading cause. 73% of oropharyngeal cancers in Europe are HPV positive.

In these cases, increasing data shows that the outcome for patients in good, with a disease-free survival rate of 85-90% over five years. This is higher compared to patients with HPV negative tumours, in which tobacco and alcohol are the main risk factors.

Patients with HPV related head and neck cancers are typically younger than HPV negative patients, in their early 50’s as opposed to late 60’s and 70’s.

Whilst HPV positive patients respond better to treatment than HPV negative patients, they are currently treated in the same way. Therefore, despite superior outcomes in HPV positive patients, this means they often end up living with the damaging side effect of treatments for many years in the future, having a negative impact on their quality of life.

There is ongoing research to see if treatment should be changed based on HPV status. Could treatments with harmful side effects be avoided in HPV positive patients? So far, such an approach has not yet been established.

However, a blood test has recently been developed to help predict response of HPV positive cancers to treatment. Oracle is currently helping fund scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research to fine tune the test for use in clinical practice.

Dr Shreerang Bhide, said:

 “Among cases of head and neck cancer, patients with HPV-positive disease tend to be younger and have better survival rates.

 “As a result, these patients need to live with the effects of their treatment for longer.

 “This research shows that a blood test for HPV DNA can be used to identify how patients have responded to treatment, and therefore has the potential to spare them unnecessary surgery and significantly improve their quality of life.”


For more information and resources on HPV, visit the campaign website, Ask About HPV here.