A team led by investigators at the U.S. National Cancer Institute has found that antibodies against human papillomavirus (HPV) could be useful biomarkers for detecting individuals who are at greatly heightened risk of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer.

In a study on 638 patients with incident head and neck cancers, 300 patients with esophageal cancers, and 1,599 controls from the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition cohort, the NCI-led team analyzed prediagnostic plasma samples for antibodies against multiple proteins of HPV16, as well as HPV6, HPV11, HPV18, HPV31, HPV33, HPV45, and HPV52. The researchers identified an increased risk of oropharyngeal cancer among HPV16 E6 seropositive participants, which they observed as earlier as a decade before diagnosis.

Further, the researchers found that, for those who were HPV16 E6 seropositive compared with seronegative, the all-cause mortality ratio among patients with oropharyngeal cancer was 0.30, suggesting that HPV16 E6 antibodies may also be a biomarker for improved survival.

“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,” Aimee R. Kreimer, Ph.D., lead investigator from NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, said in a statement.

Added co-author Paul Brennan, Ph.D., Genetic Epidemiology Group head at the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer: “If the predictive capability of the HPV16 E6 antibody holds up in other studies, we may want to consider developing a screening tool based on this result.”

“Evaluation of human papillomavirus antibodies and risk of subsequent head and neck cancer” was published online in the Journal of Clinical Oncology June 17.

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