Researchers discover genetic fingerprint of HPV virus in some head and neck cancers

In collaboration with the Press Association
US scientists have combed the genetic code of head and neck cancers.

A large US study has pinpointed genetic errors that mark out head and neck cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). 

"This important study greatly improves our understanding of the biology of head and neck cancer" - Professor Nick Coleman, Cancer Research UK

If confirmed in further studies this could be used to develop potential new treatments.

Head and neck cancers include tumours of the throat, mouth, nasal cavity, larynx, salivary gland among other tissues and organs.

Some are linked to tobacco or alcohol use, while others are caused by infection with HPV, more commonly associated with cervical cancers.

Rates of HPV-linked head and neck cancers are on the increase.

The US study, published in the journal Nature, was carried out as part of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project.

Using cutting-edge DNA analysis, the team found several similarities between the DNA from head and neck tumour cells and other cancer types - as well as new subtypes of smoking-related head and neck cancer. 

The US team studied samples from 279 head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC) from untreated patients, around eight in 10 of whom were smokers. Most of the samples were oral cavity cancers and larynx cancers (61 per cent and 26 per cent respectively).

The researchers found that specific alterations in genes called FGFR3 and PIK3CA – which produce important protein molecules that help cells grow – were common in many patients with HPV-related cancers. 

These genes are also present in a wider set of faults found in smoking-related tumours.

But faults in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene, which produces another important growth molecule, were rare among HPV-positive cancers, despite being frequently altered in HPV-negative tumours.

Similarities between the DNA of head and neck tumours cells and other cancers - including squamous cell lung cancer, and cervical cancer - were also found, suggesting there may be common paths of cancer development – and potentially treatment.

Calling the study “important”, Professor Nick Coleman - a Cancer Research UK expert in HPV and cancer - went on to say: “It greatly improves our understanding of the biology of head and neck cancer, pinpointing crucial genetic differences between those tumours caused by HPV infection, and others linked with risk factors like smoking.

"HPV-linked head and neck cancers are becoming more common, and this study suggests that the virus may trigger a small number of genetic faults that are causing the disease. This opens up important new avenues of research, with the possibility of developing treatments targeted to these faults to help tackle head and neck cancer in the future."

Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in the US, Dr Eric Green, said that the new findings “help establish a genomic map of various head and neck cancers, provide new insights into other similar cancers and may further our understanding of how viruses can impact disease.”


  • The Cancer Genome Atlas Network. (2015). Comprehensive genomic characterization of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas Nature, 517 (7536), 576-582 DOI: 10.1038/nature14129