Purpose of review: Human papillomavirus (HPV) status itself is an important and very probably the strongest prognostic factor in head and neck cancer. Because of the prognostic advantage of patients with HPV-positive cancers, the issue of the quality of life of survivors has become increasingly important. The possibility of treatment de-escalation in patients with virally induced tumors is being considered. Many challenges have to be addressed in order to integrate HPV status in the routine decision-making in patients with oropharyngeal cancer. The present review discusses the standardization of detection methods suitable for clinical use and the differences in predictive parameters between patients with HPV-positive and HPV-negative tumors.
Recent findings: The gold standard for the identification of patients with oropharyngeal tumors etiologically linked to HPV infection is undoubtedly the detection of HPV 16 E6/E7 mRNA. The detection of a surrogate marker of active viral infection, p16ink4a, has a low sensitivity when used alone and must therefore be combined with the detection of HPV DNA or HPV-specific antibodies. The detailed knowledge of the importance of specific prognostic parameters is crucial in the choice of treatment. Nodal staging is probably much less important in HPV-positive cancers.
Summary: It is of great importance to implement standardized testing for the identification of patients with HPV-induced oropharyngeal tumors. The treatment decision models in HPV-positive tumors have to take into account the probably different prognostic value of nodal parameters. Before introducing treatment de-escalation in patients with virally induced tumors into clinical practice, more research and clinical studies are needed.