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HPV predicts survival in tonsil and tongue cancers

by British Journal of Cancer | News

3 November 2010

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When the human papillomavirus (HPV) is found in cancer tumours of the tonsil and base of the tongue, patients are more likely to survive following treatment.

The new research1, published in the British Journal of Cancer and during Mouth Cancer Awareness Month, followed 198 patients in Australia for an average of two years after they had had surgery or radiotherapy for the disease.

The researchers found that patients with HPV positive cancer were four times less likely to die than patients whose cancers weren’t caused by the HPV infection.

The cancer was also three times less likely to recur at the primary site in patients with HPV positive cancers.

Dr Angela Hong, lead author from the University of Sydney, said: “Our study, which focused on a group of patients with advanced oropharyngeal cancer, found that those with cancer caused by HPV had a significantly better chance of survival than cancer which was not caused by HPV. And this beneficial HPV effect was seen regardless of the type of treatment they had.

“HPV status is now the strongest predictor of whether a patient will survive oropharyngeal cancer or whether the disease will return. Various clinical trials are now in development to tailor treatment according to HPV status of tumours.”

Dr Lesley Walker, director of information at Cancer Research UK, said: “This study suggests that people with HPV in tumours of tonsil and base of tongue cancers respond better to treatment. It’s possible that, in the future, patients with HPV positive cancers may be able to have less intensive forms of treatment which would reduce the side effects of therapy.

“In addition to its role in cancer of the oropharynx, HPV causes most if not all cervical cancer and increases the risk of cancer of the vagina, penis and anus. The virus is spread through all types of close sexual contact but using condoms and vaccination against HPV will reduce the risk.

“Smoking and drinking alcohol also increase the chance of developing head and neck cancer. People can reduce their risk by not smoking, cutting down on their alcohol intake and by eating a healthy balanced diet which is high in fruit and vegetables.”


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  1. Hong et al. Human papillomavirus predicts outcome in oropharyngeal cancer in patients treated primarily with surgery or radiation therapy, British Journal of Cancer (2010) 00, 1– 8