Role of Human Papillomavirus in Vulvar Cancer

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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is involved in one of the at least 2 pathways leading to vulvar squamous cell carcinoma (VSCC). Inactivation of p53 and retinoblastoma by the viral products E6 and E7 is involved in malignant transformation. The percentage of HPV-positive VSCCs ranges from 18% to 75%, depending on the geographical area. HPV-associated tumors affect relatively young women and arise from high-grade intraepithelial lesions, identical to other HPV-associated premalignant lesions of the anogenital tract. HPV-independent tumors tend to affect older women and usually arise in a background of inflammatory skin disorders and a subtle variant of in situ lesion called differentiated vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia. HPV-positive tumors tend to be of basaloid or warty types, whereas HPV-independent tumors tend to be of keratinizing type, but there is frequent overlap between histologic types. There is no conclusive evidence yet on the best strategy in terms of determining HPV attribution. HPV DNA detection is generally considered the gold standard although there is some concern about misclassification when using this technique alone. p16 immunostaining has shown to be an excellent surrogate marker of HPV infection. Positive results for both techniques are considered the best evidence for HPV-association. The prognostic role of HPV in VSCC is still contradictory, but increasing evidence suggests that HPV-associated tumors are less aggressive. Currently, there are no differences in treatment between HPV-associated and HPV-independent VSCC, but novel immunological strategies based on anti-HPV antigens are being evaluated in clinical trials.

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