A new large-scale genetic study of head and neck cancers shows why some individuals infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) may go on to develop oropharyngeal cancer while others do not.
Head and neck cancers are a related group of cancers that involve the oral cavity, pharynx (oropharynx, nasopharynx, and hypopharynx), and larynx.
The most significant causes of all head and neck cancers are tobacco use and alcohol consumption.
These exposures account for the development of approximately 80% of such cancers globally, with some variation for different subsites (65% for the oral cavity vs 86% for the larynx).
The study, published today in Nature Genetics, identifies seven new genetic loci (locations of a gene on a chromosome): one that is linked to oropharyngeal cancer and six that are associated with oral cavity cancer, thus providing new insights into the development of these diseases.
The study, led by researchers from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in partnership with 40 other research groups, compared about 6000 people with cancer of the oral cavity or pharynx (cases) with about 6000 people without the disease (controls).
The researchers conducted extensive DNA analysis of more than 7 million variants for each individual.
The most prominent finding was an association between oropharyngeal cancer and genetic variation in the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) region, a genetic region important for regulation of the immune system.
One particular set of variants in the HLA region was associated with a more than 4-fold protective effect against developing oropharyngeal cancer associated with HPV infection.
The same genetic variants have previously been shown to protect against cervical cancer, which is known to be associated with HPV infection.