People with Hepatitis C are at two to five times higher risk of developing head and neck cancers, suggests a new study. This study was conducted by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre. The researchers feel the findings are likely to have implications on the screening of the virus and the treatment of head and neck cancers.
Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne virus in the US. According to Harrys A. Torres, M.D., associate professor, Infectious Disease, Infection Control and Employee Health, it has become possible to cure more than 90% of the HCV population in the last few years due to new antiviral drugs. He also explained that antivirals are oral medications that are taken once or twice a day with almost no side effects.
At the MD Anderson clinic, opened in 2009 to address the needs of HCV patients, a number of head and neck cancer patients were tested positive for Hepatitis C virus. This led the researchers to suspect an undiscovered correlation between the two. Their findings revealed that the connection between Hepatitis C and oropharyngeal and nonoropharyngeal cancers is as high as its association to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Oropharyngeal cancers occur in the oropharynx or in the middle part of the throat, and also include the back one-third parts of the tongue, soft palate, tonsil and side and back walls of the throat. Nonoropharyngeal cancers, on the other hand, occur in the oral cavity, nasal cavity, and the larynx.
34,545 MD Anderson patients who were tested for HCV between 2004 and 2014 were identified for the study. All the patients were tested for HCV antibodies and viral RNA tests were used to confirm chronic infection, when available. 409 head and neck cancer patients were included as case subjects (164 with oropharyngeal and 245 with nonoropharyngeal). Since control for smoking was an important aspect of the research, as it is a major risk factor for head and neck cancers, the researchers identified 694 control subjects, all with a diagnosis of smoking-related cancers (378 with lung, 168 with esophageal and 148 with bladder).
It was found in the study that 14% of the patients with oropharyngeal cancers tested positive for HCV antibodies in comparison to just 6.5% in the control group. 20% were tested positive for HCV antibodies with nonoropharyngeal cancer.
The researchers found that compared to the controls, the risk for HCV patients of developing specific head and neck cancers was increased 2.4 times for oral cavity cancers, 2.04 times for oropharynx cancers and 4.96 times for larynx cancers.
145 out of the oropharyngeal cancer patients were also tested for human papillomavirus (HPV), giving researchers a chance to compare a possible connection between the two viruses. People with HCV positive head and neck cancers were more likely to also test positive for HPV.
These findings were published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.