Although HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer (OPC) patients have improved prognosis compared to HPV negative patients; there remains an HPV-positive group who have poor outcomes. Biomarkers to stratify discrete patient outcomes are thus desirable. Our objective was to analyse viral load (VL) by droplet digital PCR (ddPCR), in HPV-positive patients with OPC on whom clinical outcome data were available.
In a cohort of patients that had previously tested HPV positive via conventional PCR, VL was determined using ddPCR assays for HPV16 L1 and E6 genes. VL was classed as “medium/high” if more than 5.57 copies or 8.68 copies of the HPV 16 L1 or E6 gene were detected respectively. Effect of VL on overall survival and hazard of death & disease progression was performed with adjustments made for sex, age, deprivation, smoking, alcohol consumption and stage.
L1 VL ranged from 0.0014-304 gene copies per cell with a mean of 30.9; comparatively E6 VL ranged from 0.0012-356 copies per cell with a mean of 37.9. Univariate analysis showed those with a medium/high VL had a lower hazard of death; this was significant for L1 (p = 0.02) but not for E6 (p = 0.67). The ratio of E6 to L1 deviated from n = 1 in most samples but had no influence on clinical outcomes.
HPV viral load may be informative for the further stratification of clinical outcomes in HPV positive OPC patients.

Copyright © 2020 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.