HPV blood test shows promise for tracking head and neck cancer after treatment

October 23, 2018

CHAPEL HILL - A new blood test developed by University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers shows promise for tracking HPV-linked head and neck cancer patients to ensure they remain cancer-free after treatment.

Researchers will present preliminary findings at the 60th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Radiation Oncology in San Antonio on Tuesday, Oct. 23. Their study evaluated a blood test for HPV-linked oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, which is a cancer of the back of the throat. The findings demonstrated the test could be an effective and less costly alternative for monitoring for cancer recurrence after radiation treatment.

"The goal of this study was to evaluate whether this test can be used to track patients who are completely asymptomatic, and thought to have no active cancer," said UNC Lineberger's Gaorav P. Gupta, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology. "We already knew that our test was very sensitive and specific, but we did not know the degree to which it would be useful in early detection of disease recurrence in patients who are otherwise thought to be disease-free."

HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is the most common cause of sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infection with certain strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer in women, genital cancers in both men and women, and cancer of the oropharynx, which is the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. The CDC estimates that approximately 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancer cases diagnosed in the United States are probably caused by HPV, which accounts for nearly 13,000 cases per year.

Gupta and his colleagues developed a blood test that can detect fragments of HPV's genetic material that have been released into the blood by dying cancer cells.

"We realized it is important to distinguish HPV DNA that's being released by dying tumor cells from the natural HPV DNA that is present during a viral infection," Gupta said. "Our method accomplishes this feat, thus making it a more sensitive and specific test for cancer."

For their study, the researchers followed 89 patients with HPV-associated oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma who received chemotherapy and radiation treatment. They administered the blood test before and during treatment, and then during follow-up visits. The patients received scans three months after treatment, and then came back for clinical exams every two to four months during the first two years, and then every six months in years three through five. Patients received X-rays or CT scans every six months, and again if they had positive HPV results.

"We are detecting subclinical disease with this blood test, and the imaging patients received confirmed those findings," said UNC Lineberger's Bhishamjit S. Chera, MD, associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology and the study's co-corresponding author. Chera presented the findings from the study at the ASTRO meeting.

Of the 70 patients whose blood tests were negative three months after treatment, none developed recurrence. Nineteen patients had positive blood tests, and eight of those patients developed recurrence. Physicians are continuing to monitor the remaining eleven who had positive blood tests but no evidence of recurrence.

"The most striking finding of our study is that of the patients who did not have any signal using our blood test, none of them developed disease recurrence," Chera said. "That raises the question: Do we need to be scanning these patients? Scans come with a lot of cost, and because of the cost, we're not able to do it as frequently. Patients end up having a lot of anxiety from one scan to the next, wondering if their cancer has come back. This blood test could spare patients the need for additional imaging and potentially alleviate some anxiety."

The researchers say the next steps will involve investigating whether the test can be used prospectively to monitor patients and to make decisions that could avoid unnecessary imaging, thereby reducing costs. They also see additional applications for the blood test, including monitoring for other HPV-linked cancers, including cervical cancer.

"We are confident this blood test will be translatable to other cancers driven by HPV, and as a monitoring tool for cancer diagnosis," Chera said. "We strongly believe that this test may also have a role in screening, not just for oropharyngeal cancer, but also cervical or anal cancers, possibly in a general population setting, or at least in patients who may be at higher risk of developing these conditions."

In addition to Chera and Gupta, other authors include Sunil Kumar, PhD; Colette Shen, MD, PhD; Robert Amdur, MD; Roi Dagan, MD; Jared Weiss, MD; Juneko Grilley-Olson, MD; Adam Zanation, MD; Trevor Hackman, MD; Jeff Blumberg, MD; Samip Patel, MD; Brian Thorp, MD; Mark Weissler, MD; Nathan Sheets, MD; and William Mendenhall, MD.

The study was supported by the University Cancer Research Fund, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the University of North Carolina School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology, UNC Lineberger and the University of Florida School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology.

Intellectual property related to the test and held by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been licensed to Naveris, a company in which Chera and Gupta hold equity stakes.
-end-


UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center

Related Cancer Articles from Brightsurf:

New blood cancer treatment works by selectively interfering with cancer cell signalling
University of Alberta scientists have identified the mechanism of action behind a new type of precision cancer drug for blood cancers that is set for human trials, according to research published in Nature Communications.

UCI researchers uncover cancer cell vulnerabilities; may lead to better cancer therapies
A new University of California, Irvine-led study reveals a protein responsible for genetic changes resulting in a variety of cancers, may also be the key to more effective, targeted cancer therapy.

Breast cancer treatment costs highest among young women with metastic cancer
In a fight for their lives, young women, age 18-44, spend double the amount of older women to survive metastatic breast cancer, according to a large statewide study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cancer mortality continues steady decline, driven by progress against lung cancer
The cancer death rate declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, including a 2.2% drop from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop in cancer mortality ever reported.

Stress in cervical cancer patients associated with higher risk of cancer-specific mortality
Psychological stress was associated with a higher risk of cancer-specific mortality in women diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Cancer-sniffing dogs 97% accurate in identifying lung cancer, according to study in JAOA
The next step will be to further fractionate the samples based on chemical and physical properties, presenting them back to the dogs until the specific biomarkers for each cancer are identified.

Moffitt Cancer Center researchers identify one way T cell function may fail in cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center researchers have discovered a mechanism by which one type of immune cell, CD8+ T cells, can become dysfunctional, impeding its ability to seek and kill cancer cells.

More cancer survivors, fewer cancer specialists point to challenge in meeting care needs
An aging population, a growing number of cancer survivors, and a projected shortage of cancer care providers will result in a challenge in delivering the care for cancer survivors in the United States if systemic changes are not made.

New cancer vaccine platform a potential tool for efficacious targeted cancer therapy
Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered a solution in the form of a cancer vaccine platform for improving the efficacy of oncolytic viruses used in cancer treatment.

American Cancer Society outlines blueprint for cancer control in the 21st century
The American Cancer Society is outlining its vision for cancer control in the decades ahead in a series of articles that forms the basis of a national cancer control plan.

Read More: Cancer News and Cancer Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.