HPV & Oropharyngeal Cancer



Each year, approximately 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer[1]. Major risk factors for oral cancer include tobacco and alcohol use. A leading cause of a subset of oral cancers, called oropharyngeal cancer, is human papillomavirus (HPV), the same virus that causes cervical cancer. Oropharyngeal cancer affects the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and the tonsils. When this cancer is linked to HPV infection it is called HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer.

Why is Research on HPV-Positive Cancer Important?

Rates of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer have dramatically increased in recent years. Experts estimate that 60 to 70 percent of newly diagnosed oropharyngeal cancers in the United States are HPV-positive, especially among young men and women[2]. Additional research is needed to address this issue through:

  • Discovery – providing new insight into why HPV-positive and HPV-negative cancers progress differently and have varying outcomes.
  • Detection – creating more effective ways to detect new or recurring HPV-positive cancers.
  • Treatment – developing better treatments, particularly for patients who don’t respond well to current therapies.

How is NIDCR Investing in Research on HPV-positive Cancer?

NIDCR invested $8 million into research on HPV-positive cancer in fiscal year 2017.  

NIDCR supports a wide range of basic, translational, and clinical HPV-related cancer research to address this emerging public health concern.

Examples of NIDCR-supported research projects include:

  • Developing simple and convenient instruments to detect salivary HPV – creating a device for use in dental offices and clinics that can detect HPV in a sample of saliva.
  • Engaging dental offices in research – assessing whether oral HPV screening during routine dental visits is feasible and acceptable for identifying and monitoring patients at risk of developing HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Identifying HPV-positive cancer biomarkers in saliva – developing a panel of salivary biomarkers that may help improve early detection of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer. Salivary biomarkers are measurable substances found in saliva whose presence or absence can indicate an aspect of health or disease.
  • Advancing tools to identify HPV-positive oral cancer tissue – building a small, handheld microscope that uses a technology that makes it easier to discriminate between healthy and potentially cancerous oral tissue.
  • Discovering new treatment strategies –  studying HPV-positive patients whose cancers recur or do not respond well to current treatments, to understand the biological mechanisms of treatment resistance.
Last Reviewed
August 2018