A study looking at the causes of mouth cancer

Cancer type:

Head and neck cancers
Laryngeal cancer
Mouth (oral) cancer
Pharyngeal cancer





This study looked at the human papilloma virus (HPV), to see if it causes abnormal cells (pre cancers) and cancers of the mouth and top of the throat. These cancers are called oropharyngeal cancer or cancer of the oropharynx.  

Cancer Research UK supported this study.

More about this trial

HPV Open a glossary item is a common type of virus that affects many people. It doesn’t usually cause any major problems. But we know from research, that certain types of HPV can cause some oropharyngeal cancers.

In this study, the people taking part were due to have samples of tissue taken (a biopsy Open a glossary item). This was because doctors thought they might have a pre cancer or a cancer of the oropharynx.

The study team also looked at tissue samples of people diagnosed with a type of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma Open a glossary item of the oropharynx.

All of the tissue samples were looked at to see if HPV could be found. 

Summary of results

The research team found that most of the cancer tissue samples did have human papilloma virus (HPV). The most common type (strain) of HPV found was HPV16. 

They also found that a change in a gene Open a glossary item called SYCP2 might increase the risk of having HPV related oropharyngeal cancer. But larger studies are needed to confirm these results. 

In this study 51 people with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx took part. Everyone who took part was being seen at Cambridge University Hospital. 

There were 2 groups in this trial:

  • prospective group 
  • retrospective group  

Prospective group
24 people took part in the prospective group. In this group, people had samples of tissue (biopsies) taken from areas where they had cancer and areas that were cancer free. So 1 of the biopsies included normal cells and the other malignant (cancer) cells. 

Researchers looked at the samples of tissue in a laboratory. They found that 18 out of 24 cancers (75%) had human papillomavirus (HPV positive). 

Doctors then looked at the HPV positive cancers. They found 2 genes that were changed. From these genes, 1 called SYCP2 had the biggest change. And there was a higher than normal amount.   

Retrospective group  
27 people took part in the retrospective group. The research team looked at samples of tissue that had been taken in the past (archival biopsies). 

They found that 23 out of 27 cancers (around 85%) were HPV positive. When they looked at the HPV positive cancers, they found that the SYCP2 gene was also changed.   

Both groups
Researchers looked at the number of HPV positive cancers. They found that 41 out of 51 people (about 80%) had HPV16. 

There are many different types of HPV and HPV16 is a high risk type of HPV. We know that people with HPV16 are more at risk of developing certain cancers. 

They also looked at the amount of time people lived without signs of their cancer coming back. They call this disease free survival (DFS). They found it was: 

  • almost 44 months for everyone 
  • over 47 months for people with HPV positive cancer 
  • almost 50 months for people with change in the SYCP2 gene 

Researchers found that having HPV 16 is linked to an increased risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx.

The team also concluded that the SYCP2 gene could be used in future as a way of finding out who is at increased risk of developing mouth and throat cancer (oropharyngeal cancer). And that the SYCP2 gene might be useful in being able to predict someone’s prognosis Open a glossary item. But more research is needed to be sure.   

We have based this summary on information from the research team. The information they sent us has been reviewed by independent specialists (peer reviewed Open a glossary item) and published in a medical journal. The figures we quote above were provided by the trial team who did the research. We have not analysed the data ourselves.

Recruitment start:

Recruitment end:

How to join a clinical trial

Please note: In order to join a trial you will need to discuss it with your doctor, unless otherwise specified.

Please note - unless we state otherwise in the summary, you need to talk to your doctor about joining a trial.

Chief Investigator

Dr Peter Goon

Supported by

Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Cancer Research UK
National Institute for Health Research: Cancer 

Questions about cancer? Contact our information nurses

Freephone 0808 800 4040

Last review date

CRUK internal database number:


Please note - unless we state otherwise in the summary, you need to talk to your doctor about joining a trial.

Charlie took part in a trial to try new treatments

A picture of Charlie

“I think it’s really important that people keep signing up to these type of trials to push research forward.”

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