High E6 Gene expression predicts for distant metastasis and poor survival in patients with hpv-positive oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma

Shariq S. Khwaja, Callie Baker, Wesley Haynes, Christopher R. Spencer, Hiram Gay, Wade Thorstad, Douglas R. Adkins, Brian Nussenbaum, Rebecca D. Chernock, James S. Lewis, Xiaowei Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Purpose Patients with human papillomavirus (HPV)-positive oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) have a favorable prognosis. As a result, de-escalation clinical trials are under way. However, approximately 10% of patients will experience distant recurrence even with standard-of-care treatment. Here, we sought to identify novel biomarkers to better risk-stratify HPV-positive patients with OPSCC. Methods and Materials Gene expression profiling by RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) and quantitative polymerase chain reaction was performed on HPV-positive OPSCC primary tumor specimens from patients with and without distant metastasis (DM). Results RNA-seq analysis of 39 HPV-positive OPSCC specimens revealed that patients with DM had 2-fold higher E6 gene expression levels than did patients without DM (P=.029). This observation was confirmed in a validation cohort comprising 93 patients with HPV-positive OPSCC. The mean normalized E6 expression level in the 17 recurring primary specimens was 13 ± 2 compared with 8 ± 1 in the remaining 76 nonrecurring primaries (P=.001). Receiver operating characteristic analysis established an E6 expression level of 7.3 as a cutoff for worse recurrence-free survival (RFS). Patients from this cohort with high E6 gene expression (E6-high) (n=51, 55%) had more cancer-related deaths (23% vs 2%, P<.001) and DM (26% vs 5%, P<.001) than did patients with low E6 gene expression (E6-low) (n=42, 45%). Kaplan-Meier survival analysis revealed that E6-high had worse RFS (95% vs 69%, P=.004) and cancer-specific survival (97% vs 79%, P=.007). E6-high maintained statistical significance in multivariate regression models balancing surgery, chemotherapy, nodal stage, and smoking status. Gene set enrichment analysis demonstrated that tumors with high E6 expression were associated with P53, epidermal growth factor receptor, activating transcription factor-2, and transforming growth factor-β signaling pathways. Conclusion High E6 gene expression level identifies HPV-positive OPSCC patients with 5-fold greater risk of distant disease recurrence and worse cancer-specific survival. Validation in a multi-institutional prospective clinical trial is required to assess the utility of E6 gene expression as a clinically useful prognostic biomarker.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1132-1141
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Radiation Oncology Biology Physics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 15 2016


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