Combined tests can spot which throat cancers are linked to HPV

In collaboration with the Press Association

UK scientists funded by the Wellcome Trust have discovered the best way to identify which patients with oropharyngeal cancer (cancer of the back of the mouth and throat) that are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) from those which are not linked to the virus, according to new research published in Clinical Cancer Research.

Many oropharyngeal cancers are linked to smoking and drinking alcohol, but a growing number of patients have HPV-linked cancers, which tend to have better outcomes.

Identifying these patients could spare them unnecessary treatment, or allow them to be enrolled into clinical trials of new treatments.

Researchers based at the University of Liverpool compared several combinations of currently used tests, and found one particular combination - staining cells with an antibody to a protein produced by the HPV virus ('p16 immunohistochemistry', or p16 IHC) , and then carrying out a DNA analysis test called DNA qPCR - was the most accurate.

The combination had a sensitivity (a measure of a test's likelihood of spotting people who have the condition being tested for) of 97 per cent, while its specificity - how good it is at identifying people who don't have the condition - stood at 94 per cent.

Lead researcher Andrew Schache said the result could directly influence how oropharyngeal cancers were diagnosed.

"This has immediate clinical applications as we consider recruitment to clinical trials designed to de-escalate the intensity of therapy based on HPV status," he said.

"Getting the diagnosis right is extremely important because cases like this may receive less aggressive therapy based on a positive test" he added.

Dr Maria Tennant, science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: "HPV is linked with some, but not all head and neck cancers so in the future this new, more accurate way of testing for the virus could help doctors tailor treatment for patients with and without HPV-linked disease.

Copyright Press Association 2011


  • Schache, A. et al. (2011). Evaluation of Human Papilloma Virus Diagnostic Testing in Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Sensitivity, Specificity, and Prognostic Discrimination Clinical Cancer Research, 17 (19), 6262-6271 DOI: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-11-0388