Evidence for transcriptional activation of the viral oncoproteins E6 and E7 is regarded as the gold standard for the presence of clinically relevant human papillomavirus (HPV), but detection of E6/E7 mRNA requires RNA extraction and polymerase chain reaction amplification—a challenging technique that is restricted to the research laboratory. The development of RNA in situ hybridization (ISH) probes complementary to E6/E7 mRNA permits direct visualization of viral transcripts in routinely processed tissues and has opened the door for accurate HPV detection in the clinical care setting. Tissue microarrays containing 282 head and neck squamous cell carcinomas from various anatomic subsites were tested for the presence of HPV using p16 immunohistochemistry, HPV DNA ISH, and an RNA ISH assay (RNAscope) targeting high-risk HPV E6/E7 mRNA transcripts. The E6/E7 mRNA assay was also used to test an additional 25 oropharyngeal carcinomas in which the HPV status as recorded in the surgical pathology reports was equivocal due to conflicting detection results (ie, p16 positive, DNA ISH negative). By the E6/E7 mRNA method, HPV was detected in 49 of 282 (17%) HNSCCs including 43 of 77 (56%) carcinomas from the oropharynx, 2 of 3 (67%) metastatic HNSCCs of an unknown primary site, 2 of 7 (29%) carcinomas from the sinonasal tract, and 2 of 195 (1%) carcinomas from other head and neck sites. p16 expression was strongly associated with the presence of HPV E6/E7 mRNA: 46 of 49 HPV-positive tumors exhibited p16 expression, whereas only 22 of 233 HPV-negative tumors were p16 positive (94% vs. 9%, P<0.0001). There was also a high rate of concordance (99%) between the E6/E7 mRNA method and HPV DNA ISH. For the selected group of discordant HNSCCs (p16+/HPV DNA−), the presence of E6/E7 transcripts was detected in 21 of 25 (84%) cases. The E6/E7 mRNA method confirmed the presence of transcriptionally active HPV-related HNSCC that has a strong predilection for the oropharynx and is strongly associated with high levels of p16 expression. Testing for HPV E6/E7 transcripts by RNA ISH is ideal because it confirms the presence of integrated and transcriptionally active virus, permits visualization of viral transcripts in tissues, and is technically feasible for routine testing in the clinical laboratory.
Departments of *Pathology
§Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery
∥Oncology, The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore, MD
†Advanced Cell Diagnostics, Hayward, CA
Conflicts of Interest and Source of Funding: The RNA in situ hybridization assays in the study were funded by and performed by the coauthors from Advanced Cell Diagnostics Inc. (H.W., X-J.M., and Y.L.), who have stocks in this company and stand to profit by any use of this testing through the company. Construction of the tissue microarrays for this study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (R01 DE013152-11). For the remaining authors none were declared.
Correspondence: William H. Westra, MD, The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, 401N Broadway, Weinberg 2242, Baltimore, MD 21231-2410 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).