HPV antibodies point researchers to high risk for oral cancer

Genomic structure of HPV--Courtesy of NCI

With rates of oral cancer linked to HPV infection on the rise, a group of investigators has pinned down a new biomarker that can be used to identify high-risk patients.

The research group at the National Cancer Institute already knew from earlier work that patients suffering from oral cancer have specific antibodies that are kicked out to try to guard against the disease--a common immune response to viral invaders. But in studying blood samples from 135 people who developed oropharyngeal cancer (which is primarily caused by HPV type 16), they found that about a third had developed these HPV16 E6 antibodies anywhere from 1 to 12 years before the disease occurred.

The control arm of the study included 1,600 patients who did not develop oral cancer. Less than 1% of those patients had the same antibody in their system. And the investigators said that it seems clear that these antibodies also indicate a higher chance of survival, with this group about 70% more likely to remain alive at the follow-up point than patients who don't have the antibody. 

"Our study shows not only that the E6 antibodies are present prior to diagnosis--but that in many cases, the antibodies are there more than a decade before the cancer was clinically detectable, an important feature of a successful screening biomarker," said Aimee R. Kreimer, the lead investigator from the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at NCI.

- here's the press release

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