Human Papillomavirus Detection in Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinomas

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Squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck (HNSCC) are a frequent diagnosis in anatomic pathology practice. Tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption are known risk factors for HNSCC but in other cases human papillomavirus (HPV) is linked to carcinogenesis. HPV proteins E6 and E7 promote oncogenesis by blocking the action of p53 and pRB, respectively. An absence of p53 mutations in addition to expression of p16 are part of the distinct molecular profile identified in the subset of HNSCCs because of HPV. Various methods are available for HPV detection but polymerase chain reaction and in situ hybridization techniques are commonly used. Both methods are amenable for testing formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissue that is a sample type readily available to the pathologist. HPV is detectable in approximately a quarter of all HNSCCs, and is particularly prevalent in the oropharynx in which the positivity rates approach 40%. A vast majority of HPV-related HNSCCs are owing to HPV type 16 with types 18, 31, and 33 accounting for almost all of the remaining cases. HPV-related HNSCCs are associated with better prognosis for both recurrence and survival. This group of tumors has also been shown to respond well to radiation treatment. As the clinical relevance of HPV in HNSCCs continues to emerge, anatomic pathologists are likely to receive increasing requests for testing. Herein, the authors review the biological and clinical aspects of HPV-associated HNSCC and review techniques for HPV detection.

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