Jul 22, 2019 | Updated: 09:15 AM EDT

Researchers Discover Characteristics to Personalize Treatment for HPV-Related Head and Neck Cancer

Jun 15, 2019 11:52 AM EDT

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Researchers Discover Characteristics to Personalize Treatment for HPV-Related Head and Neck Cancer
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Researchers at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, utilizing a new blood test that's in development, identified traits that could be used to personalize treatment patients with a type of head and neck cancer linked to HPV infection.

The researchers published their study in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, and they believe their findings could help identify those patients with characteristics linked to improved treatment responses. The team hopes to tailor therapy for those patients to reduce their exposure to potential toxic side effects.

Assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology, UNC Lineberger's Gaorav Gupta, MD, Ph.D., said that head and neck cancers that are caused by HPV infection tend to have a better overall outcome than head and neck cancers related to other factors like smoking and alcohol.

Gupta explained further that there had been a lot of interest in exploring whether they can give less treatment to these patients and still achieve the same level of the cure while reducing the toxicities of therapy. The purpose of this research was to investigate whether a blood test for circulating tumor HPV DNA can potentially be used to monitor the response of a patient's cancer to chemotherapy and radiation.

The team developed the test to detect levels of DNA in the blood from HPV-linked oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma tumors. Studies are ongoing to see if the test can be used to monitor patients' response to treatment with radiation and chemotherapy. Also, the test has been licensed for commercial development to the company Naveris Inc.

Researchers discovered traits in patients, in their latest research, that could be used to stratify and personalize treatment. They drew their findings from a study of the blood test results from 103 patients who were undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for HPV-linked oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma.

The study's first author and UNC Lineberger's Bhishmjit S. Chera, MD, associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology, said that what this means is that in the future, dynamic, real-time monitoring of circulating tumor HPV DNA in the blood during treatment may help them better personalize and select treatment - particularly the level of radiation and chemotherapy they give the patient.

As a biomarker of a good structure, one characteristic that emerged from their study was a high level of circulating tumor HPV DNA in the blood before treatment. Since the finding appears counterintuitive, the team plan to investigate why a high level of initial viral DNA in the blood would be linked to a better outcome. Gupta noted that at first, it might appear confusing, but they think it reflects how addicted the tumor is to HPV biology.

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