HPV antibody test can predict throat cancer risk, study finds

June 26, 2013 | by

Human papillomavirus (HPV) may be most well-known for causing cervical cancer, but the sexually transmitted infection is also linked to a variety of other cancers, including those of the head and neck. Now a new study suggests that a simple blood test screening for HPV-specific antibodies can help predict a person's risk for throat cancers long before any symptoms surface.

Human papillomavirus

The human papillomavirus (pictured above) may be most well-known for its connection to cervical cancer, but a blood test screening for its antibodies can predict throat cancer risk later in life.

The article, published online last week in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, included 135 throat cancer patients and an analysis of blood samples collected before their diagnoses. The analysis looked for antibodies – proteins generated by the immune system in response to a pathogen – that are specific to HPV infections.

In their findings, the researchers reported that one particular antibody, HPV16 E6, is linked to throat cancers; they discovered that almost 35 percent of throat cancer patients tested positive for this antibody, compared to less than 1 percent of the control group.

Further, the study's authors wrote: "HPV16 E6 seropositivity was present more than 10 years before diagnosis of oropharyngeal cancers." This suggests that a HPV E6 blood test can predict a person's throat cancer risk later in life and gives the patient and doctor additional time and options to prevent the disease, or catch it in a more treatable stage.

Ellie Maghami, M.D., chief of City of Hope's Division of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, told CNN.com that "perhaps these types of patients could be under closer surveillance, so this potentially allows for more regular screening, early detection, earlier diagnosis and earlier intervention."

Maghami also told CNN.com that because the blood test is still in development, people in a high risk category should be educated about prevention and early detection of HPV-related cancers. This includes people who "engage in sex at a young age, have multiple partners and are liberal in their sexual practices." Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls should be vaccinated against HPV.

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 36,000 Americans will get oral or throat cancer in 2013, and about 6,850 will die from this disease. The five-year survival rate for this cancer diagnosed at stage 1 is 96 percent; that statistic drops sharply to 48 percent if it is diagnosed at stage 4.