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HPV Linked to Throat Cancer Survival

Rise in Cancer Linked to Change in Sexual Practices
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July 29, 2009 -- As a group, blacks with head and neck cancer have a much lower survival rate than whites with the disease, and now groundbreaking new research helps explain why.

The study sheds new light on the racial differences in head and neck cancer presentation and outcomes, and experts say that it should change the way all patients with the disease are initially evaluated and how many are treated.

“It is the most important development in head and neck cancer that I have seen in the last 30 years,” Scott Lippman, MD, of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center said in a news conference held today.

Survival 5 Times Greater in HPV-Positive Patients

Lippman, who was not involved with the study, was talking about the identification of human papilloma virus (HPV) as a major survival indicator in patients with a specific type of head and neck cancer.

When researchers examined outcomes by race for subgroups of head and neck cancer, they found that blacks had a poorer survival for only one -- oropharyngeal cancer, which includes the throat, tonsils, and base of the tongue.

And when they looked specifically at oropharyngeal cancer, they found a striking difference in survival among patients who were and were not infected with human papilloma virus 16 (HPV 16) -- one of the sexually transmitted HPV viruses that also causes cervical cancer.

HPV-positive patients treated with chemotherapy and radiation were five times more likely to survive than those with HPV-negative disease, lead author Kevin Cullen, MD, of the University of Maryland tells WebMD.

White patients had nine times the HPV infection rate of blacks, with just 4% of black patients evaluated testing positive for the virus, compared to 34% of whites.

Cullen says the fact that HPV-positive throat cancer has such a good prognosis and the fact that blacks are far more likely to have HPV-negative disease may largely explain the head and neck cancer survival disparity amongst the two groups.

He noted that survival among HPV-positive patients is as high as 90%; survival rates are very low for HPV-negative disease.

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