BACKGROUND. Patients with p16+ oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) are potentially cured with definitive treatment. However, there are currently no reliable biomarkers of treatment failure for p16+ OPSCC. Pathologist-based visual assessment of tumor cell multinucleation (MN) has been shown to be independently prognostic of disease-free survival (DFS) in p16+ OPSCC. However, its quantification is time intensive, subjective, and at risk of interobserver variability. METHODS. We present a deep-learning-based metric, the multinucleation index (MuNI), for prognostication in p16+ OPSCC. This approach quantifies tumor MN from digitally scanned H&E-stained slides. Representative H&E-stained whole-slide images from 1094 patients with previously untreated p16+ OPSCC were acquired from 6 institutions for optimization and validation of the MuNI. RESULTS. The MuNI was prognostic for DFS, overall survival (OS), or distant metastasis-free survival (DMFS) in p16+ OPSCC, with HRs of 1.78 (95% CI: 1.37-2.30), 1.94 (1.44-2.60), and 1.88 (1.43-2.47), respectively, independent of age, smoking status, treatment type, or tumor and lymph node (T/N) categories in multivariable analyses. The MuNI was also prognostic for DFS, OS, and DMFS in patients with stage I and stage III OPSCC, separately. CONCLUSION. MuNI holds promise as a low-cost, tissue-nondestructive, H&E stain-based digital biomarker test for counseling, treatment, and surveillance of patients with p16+ OPSCC. These data support further confirmation of the MuNI in prospective trials.
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