Background: Determination of human papillomavirus (HPV) status has become clinically relevant for patient stratification under UICC TNM8 staging. Within the United Kingdom, a combination of p16 IHC and HPV DNA-ISH is recommended for classifying HPV status. This study will assess a series of clinically applicable second-line molecular tests to run in combination with p16 IHC to optimally determine HPV status. Methods: The ability of HPV RNA-ISH, HPV DNA-ISH, and HPV DNA-PCR to identify p16-positive/HPV-positive patients was investigated in a population-based oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) cohort of patients diagnosed in Northern Ireland from 2000 to 2011. Results: Only 41% of the Northern Irish OPSCC patient population was associated with HPV-driven carcinogenesis. Both ISH assays were more specific than the DNA-PCR assay (100% and 95% vs. 67%) and were less likely to be affected by preanalytic factors such as increasing block age. A pooled HPV genotype probe for RNA-ISH was found to be the most accurate molecular assay assessed (95% accuracy) when compared with p16 positivity. Conclusions: Our study demonstrates the advantage of tissue-based molecular assays when determining HPV status in retrospective samples. Specifically, we demonstrate the enhanced sensitivity and specificity of ISH techniques compared with PCR-based methodology when working with formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissue, and found HPV RNA-ISH to be the most effective assay for determining HPV status. Impact: As p16 IHC is a relatively inexpensive, accessible, and sensitive test for stratifying patients by HPV status, this study finds that more patients would benefit from first-line p16 IHC followed by specific HPV testing using HPV RNA-ISH to confirm HPV status.
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