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Virus May Affect Survival in Head and Neck Cancer

Human papillomavirus infection linked to better prognosis, research suggests

THURSDAY, July 30 (HealthDay News) -- Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) may improve survival in patients with head and neck cancer, U.S. researchers report.

They said the finding may explain why black Americans, who have far less HPV infection than whites, have poorer head and neck cancer survival rates.

"There is currently no consensus on why blacks fare worse with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck than whites, but this is the first clue that it may be biologic rather than related to issues of access, insurance or provider attitudes," senior study author Dr. Kevin Cullen, director of the University of Maryland's cancer center and a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said in a news release from the American Association for Cancer Research.

Cullen and his colleagues found that median overall survival was 70.6 months for white patients and 20.9 months for black patients treated with chemotherapy and radiation. Median survival was 26.6 months for HPV-negative patients, while the survival rate for HPV-positive patients couldn't be calculated because most were still alive.

Four percent of black patients and 34 percent of white patients were HPV-positive, the researchers found.

The study appears in the July 29 online edition of Cancer Prevention Research.

The findings may prove "practice-changing," according to Dr. Scott Lippman, editor-in-chief of Cancer Prevention Research and chairman of the Department of Clinical Cancer Prevention at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

"Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck is one of the fastest- growing cancers, and this study gives us a new way to assess prognosis for our patients," Lippman said in the news release.

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more about head and neck cancer.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: American Association for Cancer Research, news release, July 29, 2009

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