Inclusion of an E7 DNA Amplification Test Improves the Robustness of Human Papillomavirus-Associated Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma Diagnosis

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



World Journal of Oncology








DNA in situ hybridization; HPV E7 DNA amplification; Human papillomavirus; Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma; p16 immunohistochemistry; Polymerase chain reaction


Background: The rise in human papillomavirus (HPV) infection rates over the last few decades in the USA has contributed to a significant increase in the overall incidence of patients diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck. These head and neck carcinomas develop in the oropharynx, with more than 90% of them caused by infection with high-risk HPV type 16. Patients diagnosed with HPV-induced oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinomas (OPSCCs) have a better prognosis and treatment response than those diagnosed with head and neck cancers caused by alcohol consumption and tobacco use. To identify patients with HPV-positive OPSCC, new guidelines recommend positive staining of oropharyngeal tissues for p16 INK4a (p16) by immunohistochemistry (IHC). Herein we discuss the testing algorithm that was adopted to address discrepant results between p16 IHC and a DNA in situ hybridization (ISH) test used routinely to diagnose HPV-positive OPSCC patients. Methods: A DNA polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that amplifies HPV16 and HPV18 E7 was developed to aid in the diagnosis of HPV-positive OPSCC in a subset of patients. Specimens from these patients stained positive for p16 by an IHC test, but negative for high-risk HPV by a commercial DNA ISH test. Moreover, these results did not match the histopathological characteristics of the specimens, nor the clinical presentations of the patients. Results: Of 21 patients’ specimens that were tested for p16 by IHC, 11 specimens showed concordant results with the high-risk HPV 16/18 DNA ISH test. Whereas, in eight p16 IHC positive specimens, HPV viral DNA was not detected by HPV16/18 DNA ISH, and two specimens were not tested by DNA ISH. When these eight p16 IHC positive specimens with discrepant p16 IHC and DNA ISH results were further tested by DNA PCR, six specimens showed concordance with p16 IHC with positive results for HPV16 E7, while two specimens were negative for HPV16 E7 by DNA PCR. All tested specimens were negative for HPV18 E7 by DNA PCR. Thus, the addition of the HPV16 and HPV18 E7 DNA PCR test identified a significant number of false negative test results by the HPV16/18 DNA ISH test and likely several false positive results by p16 IHC. Conclusions: Inclusion of an HPV16 E7 DNA PCR test improved the robustness of HPV-associated OPSCC diagnosis in patients with discrepant results from p16 IHC staining and a DNA ISH test, and identified patients for proper management with less misclassification.