Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an important cause of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), especially in young people. These tumours overexpress p16 and respond well to treatment. The rapid detection of HPV in patients with HNSCC may expedite treatment when p16 status is not immediately available.
Saliva-based DNA collection kits and nested polymerase chain reaction (PCR) were used to determine the HPV status of 62 individuals with biopsy-proven HNSCC. Immunohistochemistry was used to determine tumour p16 status.
A total of 62 patients were included in the study. Twenty-nine samples (47%) were positive for HPV DNA, the majority of which were high risk (HR) subtypes (79%). Patients who tested positive for HR HPV were more likely to have a tumour arising in the oropharynx compared to a non-oropharyngeal site (74 vs 26%; p = 0.003). A positive HR HPV saliva assay was 100% specific (95% CI 59–100%) and had a 100% positive predictive value (95% CI 75–100%) for a p16 positive tumour arising in the oropharynx. In contrast, a negative HR HPV assay had a 96% negative predictive value (95% CI 80–100%) for tumours arising in a non-oropharyngeal site. Independent of site, the saliva assay had a sensitivity of 77% (95% CI 54–91%) and a specificity of 94% (95% CI 77–99%), respectively, for a p16 positive tumour.
We show that a saliva based assay is an effective method for detecting HPV in patients with HNSCC and that a positive HR HPV test is highly specific for p16 positive tumours arising in the oropharynx. This simple and rapid test could be used in cases where a biopsy of the primary tumour is not readily available.