In the United States, about 3% of all cancers are head and neck related, with about 63,000 Americans developing head and neck malignancies annually.

A study in Vaccine discusses how vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV) might be protective against them.

Karolinska Institutet researchers point out that HPV causes some head and neck cancers, adding, “As HPV vaccination can prevent infection, an estimation of which HPV types have an active viral oncogene transcription in what proportion of tumors might allow estimation of the proportion of head & neck cancers preventable by HPV vaccination.”

To do that, researchers used all RNA sequencing data from primary tumors of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas in 500 patients. Analyzing 3.7 terabyte of sequencing data with the bioinformatics pipeline ViraPipe, the study team used paired end reads that were quality filtered using the original code and aligned to known HPV sequences. 

According to the results, HPV transcripts were found in 113 of 500 specimens, with transcription of both the E6 and E7 viral oncogenes in 90 specimens. HPV16 had E6/E7 transcription in 67 cases, HPV33 in 14 cases, HPV18 in six cases, and HPV35 in five cases. 

Researchers report that HPV oncogene transcription was most common in tumors from tonsils (34/40, 85%), followed by palate (4/5, 80%), base of tongue (10/20, 50%), oropharynx (4/10, 40%), and gum (4/11, 36%). 

“Comparison to the cancer incidence statistics in the USA indicates that vaccine-preventable HPV16/18/33 oncogene transcription would be found in about 8.3% female and 20.2% male patients of head and neck cancers in the USA,” state the authors.

Noting that transcription of the HPV oncogenes is present in a large proportion of head and neck cancers in the The Cancer Genome Atlas database, the researchers estimate, “If these cancers are caused by HPV, prevention of HPV16/18/33 infections would prevent ~49 300 annual head and neck cancer cases in the USA alone.”

Gardasil, an HPV vaccine licensed for use in June 2006 by the FDA, targets four strains of HPV—HPV-6, 11, 16, and 18. HPV-16 and HPV-18 are estimated to account for about 70% of all cervical cancers, while HPV-6 and HPV-11 cause about 90% of genital warts.

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