Human papillomavirus as a driver of head and neck cancers

Maria Elisa Sabatini & Susanna Chiocca, British Journal of Cancer, 11 November 2019


The human papillomavirus (HPV) family includes more than 170 different types of virus that infect stratified epithelium. High-risk HPV is well established as the primary cause of cervical cancer, but in recent years, a clear role for this virus in other malignancies is also emerging.

Indeed, HPV plays a pathogenic role in a subset of head and neck cancers—mostly cancers of the oropharynx—with distinct epidemiological, clinical and molecular characteristics compared with head and neck cancers not caused by HPV.

This review summarises our current understanding of HPV in these cancers, specifically detailing HPV infection in head and neck cancers within different racial/ethnic subpopulations, and the differences in various aspects of these diseases between women and men.

Finally, we provide an outlook for this disease, in terms of clinical management, and consider the issues of ‘diagnostic biomarkers’ and targeted therapies.

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