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Br J Cancer. 2012 Jan 17;106(2):358-65. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2011.542. Epub 2011 Dec 6.

Benefit of chemotherapy as part of treatment for HPV DNA-positive but p16-negative squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx.

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Edinburgh Cancer Centre, Western General Hospital, Crewe Road South, Edinburgh EH4 2XU, UK.



To determine (a) the cause of an improvement in survival from oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) in South East Scotland and (b) whether this improvement was human papillomavirus (HPV) and p16 subtype-dependent.


Clinicopathological characteristics and outcome data for patients referred with OSCC from 1999 to 2001 (Cohort-1) and 2003 to 2005 (Cohort-2) were obtained. Molecular HPV detection and immunohistochemistry for p16 were performed from paraffin blocks.


Cohort-1 and Cohort-2 contained 118 and 136 patients, respectively. Kaplan-Meier analysis revealed significantly improved survival in Cohort-2 (P<0.0001). Sub-classification according to HPV and p16 status revealed no improvement in survival in Class-I (HPV-ve/p16-ve; 47 patients) or Class-III (HPV+ve/p16+ve; 77 patients). However in Class-II (HPV+ve/p16-ve; 56 patients) an increase in 5-year cause-specific survival from 36% in Cohort-1 to 73% in Cohort-2 was detected (P=0.0001).Proportional hazards analysis of 217 patients treated radically demonstrated that significant variables were p16 (P<0.0001), N stage (P=0.0006) and cohort (P=0.0024). Removing cohort from the variables offered to the model showed that, whereas p16 (P<0.0001) and N stage (P=0.0016) remain significant, chemotherapy (P=0.0163) and T stage (P=0.0139) are now significant. This suggests that much of the cohort effect is due to the higher use of chemotherapy in the second cohort.


These data suggest that HPV+ve/p16-ve patients constitute a separate subclass of OSCC who may particularly benefit from chemotherapy. They imply that p16 status cannot be considered a surrogate for HPV status, and those trials to de-escalate treatment in HPV+ve OSCC should take p16 status into account.

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