Nonuniform Distribution of High-risk Human Papillomavirus in Squamous Cell Carcinomas of the Oropharynx: Rethinking the Anatomic Boundaries of Oral and Oropharyngeal Carcinoma from an Oncologic HPV Perspective

Elise Gelwan, Ian James Malm, Armen Khararjian, Carol Fakhry, Justin A. Bishop, William H. Westra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

14 Scopus citations


The oral cavity and oropharynx have historically been viewed as a single anatomic compartment of the head and neck. The practice of combining the oral cavity and oropharynx has recently been revised, largely owing to the observation that human papillomavirus (HPV)-related carcinogenesis has a strong predilection for the oropharynx but not the oral cavity. The purpose of this study was to determine whether HPV is evenly distributed across squamous cell carcinomas of the oropharynx including those sites that do not harbor tonsillar tissues such as the soft palate. A search of the medical records of the Johns Hopkins Hospital identified 32 primary squamous cell carcinomas of the soft palate (n=31) and posterior pharyngeal wall (n=1). All were evaluated with p16 immunohistochemistry and high-risk HPV in situ hybridization (ISH) (29 by RNA ISH and 3 by DNA ISH). For comparison, we also reviewed the medical records to obtain the HPV status of patients who had undergone HPV testing of primary tonsillar carcinomas over the same time interval as part of their clinical care. High-risk HPV as detected by ISH was present in just 1 (3.1%) of the 32 oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinomas, including 1 of 2 p16-positive carcinomas. The difference in HPV detection rates between tonsillar and nontonsillar sites was significant (1/32, 3.1% vs. 917/997, 92%; P<0.0001). HPV is not frequently detected in squamous cell carcinomas arising from nontonsillar regions of the oropharynx. Indeed, squamous cell carcinomas of the soft palate more closely resemble those arising in the oral cavity than those arising in areas of the oropharynx harboring tonsillar tissue. This finding not only further sharpens our understanding of site-specific targeting by HPV, but may have practical implications regarding HPV testing and even the way the oral vault is oncologically compartmentalized to partition HPV-positive from HPV-negative cancers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1722-1728
Number of pages7
JournalAmerican Journal of Surgical Pathology
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2017



  • head and neck squamous cell carcinoma
  • human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • in situ hybridization
  • oral cavity
  • oropharynx
  • p16
  • soft palate
  • tonsil

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Surgery
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine

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