Detection of HPV infection in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma: a practical proposal


Detecting human papillomavirus (HPV) infection in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is clinically relevant, but there is no agreement about the most appropriate methodology. We have studied 64 oropharyngeal carcinomas using p16 immunohistochemistry, HPV DNA in situ hybridisation (ISH) and HPV DNA polymerase chain reaction (PCR) followed by pyrosequencing. We have also evaluated a new assay, RNAscope, designed to detect HPV E6/E7 RNA transcripts. Using a threshold of 70 % labelled tumour cells, 21 cases (32.8 %) were p16 positive. Of these, 19 cases scored positive with at least one HPV detection assay. Sixteen cases were positive by HPV DNA-ISH, and 18 cases were positive using the E6/E7 RNAscope assay. By PCR and pyrosequencing, HPV16 was detected in 15 cases, while one case each harboured HPV33, 35 and 56. All p16-negative cases were negative using these assays. We conclude that p16 expression is a useful surrogate marker for HPV infection in HNSCC with a high negative predictive value and that p16-positive cases should be further evaluated for HPV infection, preferably by PCR followed by type determination. Using RNase digestion experiments, we show that the RNAscope assay is not suitable for the reliable discrimination between E6/E7 RNA transcripts and viral DNA.

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This work was supported by grants from the Berliner Krebsgesellschaft (NIFF 201004) and the Wilhelm Sander Foundation (2012.029.1). Mário Barros is supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Michelle Oliveira-Silva was supported by the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD).

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The authors indicate no potential conflicts of interest.

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Correspondence to Gerald Niedobitek.

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Dreyer, J.H., Hauck, F., Oliveira-Silva, M. et al. Detection of HPV infection in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma: a practical proposal. Virchows Arch 462, 381–389 (2013).

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  • HPV
  • p16
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • In situ hybridisation
  • PCR