Researchers develop blood test for HPV-associated head and neck cancer

pharmafile | December 3, 2021 | News story | Medical Communications  

A new blood test developed by researchers at Mass Eye and Ear and Mass General Hospital have developed a more accurate and faster diagnosis of a head and neck cancer associated with human papilloma virus (HPV). The blood test, or liquid biopsy, was shown to be more than 98% accurate, and provided a diagnosis on average 26 days faster than the conventional tissue biopsy. The method is additionally 38% cheaper than standard methods. 

The study was published in Clinical Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research. Liquid biopsy, when combined with findings form routine imaging and physical exam, creating a completely non-invasive diagnostic approach, had a diagnostic accuracy greater than 95%.

The custom blood test was developed for and applied in this study, and detects microscopic levels of HPV DNA in the blood, building on the growing field of cell-free DNA in cancer screening and diagnostics research. Cell-free DNA are DNA fragments that break off cancer cells, and are released into the bloodstream.

Daniel L Faden, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist and investigator for the Mike Toth Head and Neck Cancer Research Center at Mass Eye and Ear, and lead study author, shared: “Current diagnostic approaches for HPV-associated head and neck cancers are imperfect and invasive, which means patients often need repeat biopsies to get to the diagnosis, thereby delaying care and increasing uncertainty, not to mention the discomfort of the procedures. Our results show strong proof of principle, and suggest that in the future, a fully integrated liquid biopsy approach to diagnose and monitor disease could be possible.” Faden is also assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Harvard Medical School. 

HPV-associated head and neck cancer rates are rising, and there is therefore a great need for faster, less expensive, more accurate, and less-invasive diagnostic tests. When caught early, the cancers can be surgically removed or treated with radiation. However, if the cancer grows and spreads through the lymph nodes, treatment becomes more difficult. Patients often suffer life-long side effects of later treatment.

Ana Ovey

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