Looking for traces of DNA from the human papillomavirus (HPV) in oral rinses from patients with a form of throat cancer could help monitor their disease, according to a preliminary US study.
The findings, published in the journal JAMA Oncology, could lead to a way to track how the disease responds to treatment, or whether it’s likely to come back.
About three-quarters of cases of cancers of the oropharynx – the middle part of the throat – are linked to HPV, a virus more commonly associated with cervical cancer.
This means traces of the virus’s DNA can be detected in patients’ oral rinses, and previous research has shown that, in some cases, the infection can persist after treatment.
To find out if the presence of HPV after treatment was linked to how patients fared, a team led by Dr Gypsyamber D’Souza from the of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore analysed oral rinses from 124 patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer, which had been taken both before and after treatment.
In particular, they looked for DNA from a strain of the disease called HPV16, thought to be responsible for the majority of cases.
Their analysis showed that HPV16 DNA was present at diagnosis in 67 of the 124 patients, but only persisted after treatment in six of them.
The cancer returned in five of these six patients, three of whom later died.
In comparison, just nine of the 119 patients without persistent HPV16 DNA developed recurrent disease.
Cancer Research UK’s head and neck cancer expert Professor Hisham Mehanna, from the University of Birmingham, said the findings showed promise.
“This small but promising study suggests that oral rinse could help monitor how patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer respond to treatment – and potentially help spot if the cancer has come back during follow-up appointments,” he said.
However, larger studies are be needed to confirm this idea.
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- Chaturvedi, A. K. et al. ‘Human Papillomavirus And Rising Oropharyngeal Cancer Incidence In The United States’. Journal of Clinical Oncology 29.32 (2011): 4294-4301.