In 2007, human papillomavirus (HPV) type 16 was recognized as a risk factor by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, for oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC), where tonsillar and base of tongue cancer (TSCC and BOTSCC) dominate. Furthermore, patients with HPV-positive TSCC and BOTSCC, had a much better clinical outcome than those with corresponding HPV-negative cancer and other head and neck cancer. More specifically, survival was around 80% for HPV-positive TSCC and BOTSCC vs.
40% five-year disease free survival, for the corresponding HPV-negative tumors with conventional radiotherapy and surgery, while this could not be observed for HPV-positive OSCC at other sites. In addition, the past 20–40 years in many Western Countries, the incidence of HPV-positive TSCC and BOTSCC has risen, and >70% are men. This has resulted in a relative increase of patients with HPV-positive TSCC and BOTSCC that may not need the intensified chemo-radiotherapy (with many more severe debilitating side effects) often given today to patients with head and neck cancer. However, before tapering therapy, one needs to enable selection of patients for such treatment, by identifying clinical and molecular markers that together with HPV-positive status will better predict patient prognosis and response to therapy. To conclude, there is a new increasing group of patients with HPV-positive TSCC and BOTSCC with good clinical outcome, where options for better-tailored therapy are needed. For prevention, it would be of benefit to vaccinate both girls and boys against HPV16 infection. For potential future screening the ways to do so need optimizing.
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