Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), once almost exclusively associated with cancer of the cervix, is now linked to head and neck cancer. Furthermore, according to a new UB study just published in the Archives of Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery, a JAMA publication, gum disease is associated with increased odds of tumors being HPV-positive.
Primary investigator Mine Tezal, assistant professor of oral biology in the School of Dental Medicine, and a team of scientists from UB evaluated data from 124 patients diagnosed with primary head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) between 1999 and 2007.
“The aim of the study was to test the presence of periodontitis, a persistent inflammatory process and HPV-status of HNSCC,” Tezal says.
Of the 124 tumor samples Tezal and her team studied, 50 were positive for HPV-16 DNA and that subjects with HPV-positive tumors had a significantly higher severity of periodontitis when compared to subjects with HPV-negative tumors.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there has been a steady increase in the prevalence of oropharyngeal cancers in the U.S. since 1973. This is despite the significant decline in tobacco use since 1965, a year after the U.S. Surgeon General issued the landmark Report on Smoking and Health.
Tezal notes that this increase has mainly been attributed to oral HPV infection.
Understanding the natural history of the oral HPV infection and targeting factors associated not only with its acquisition but also with its persistence, says Tezal, will lead to more effective strategies, not only for prevention, but also for treatment.
“While there is an effective vaccine for cervical HPV infection if given prior to the exposure of the virus (females 9-26; males 9-21), oral HPV infection can be transmitted at or any time after birth, and the target population for a vaccine to prevent oral HPV infection has not yet been defined,” says Tezal.
Tezal pointed out that though many previous studies combined periodontitis and dental decay as indicators of poor oral health, dental decay was not significantly linked to tumor-HPV status in the present study.
“The fact that only periodontitis was associated with tumor HPV status points to the potential association of [this] inflammation with tumor HPV status,” she says.
When Tezal and colleagues started their research about eight years ago they were looking at the potential association between chronic inflammation and head and neck cancers because the importance of the local oral environment for malignant tumor growth was widely accepted. However there wasn’t research evaluating the role of local oral factors in the natural history of HNSCC, Tezal says.
“The next step in this research will be intervention studies to test whether treating the sources of inflammation, like gum disease, can reduce the acquisition and/or persistence of oral HPV infection and improve the prognosis of HPV-related diseases,” she says.