Epigenetic mechanisms of human papillomavirus-associated head and neck cancer

Nicole V.J. Anayannis, Nicolas F. Schlecht, Thomas J. Belbin

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Context.-Growing evidence suggests that as many as half of all oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinomas (OPSCCs) harbor human papillomavirus (HPV) infections. Despite being more advanced at diagnosis, HPV-positive OPSCCs are associated with a better response to therapy and longer patient survival than HPV-negative OPSCCs. Human papillomavirus-positive OPSCC has also been shown to have distinct host gene expression profiles compared with HPV-negative OPSCC. Recently, this distinction has been shown to include the epigenome. It is well supported that cancers are epigenetically deregulated. This review highlights epigenetic differences between HPV-positive and HPV-negative OPSCCs. The epigenetic mechanisms highlighted include methylation changes to host and viral DNA, and host chromatin modification. We also review the current evidence regarding host DNA methylation changes associated with smoking, and deregulation of microRNA expression in HPV-positive OPSCC. Objective.-To provide an overview of epigenetic mechanisms reported in HPV-positive OPSCC, with analogies to cervical cancer, and discussion of the challenges involved in studying epigenetic changes in HPV-associated OPSCC in combination with changes associated with smoking. Data Sources.-Sources were a literature review of peer-reviewed articles in PubMed on HPV and either OPSCC or head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, and related epigenetic mechanisms. Conclusions.-Epigenetic changes are reported to be a contributing factor to maintaining a malignant phenotype in HPV-positive OPSCC. The epigenetic mechanisms highlighted in this review can be studied for potential as biomarkers or as drug targets. Furthermore, continued research on the deregulation of epigenetic mechanisms in HPV-positive OPSCC (compared with HPV-negative OPSCC) may contribute to our understanding of the clinical and biologic differences between HPV-positive and HPV-negative OPSCC.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1373-1378
Number of pages6
JournalArchives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Medical Laboratory Technology


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