Head and Neck Cancer

Throat cancers: unraveling the links between HPV and smoking

Headshot of Jose Zevallos, MD with banner
Jose P. Zevallos, MD Director, Head & Neck Surgical Oncology

Over the last two decades, there has been a rapidly rising proportion of cancers of the throat linked to human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. Cancers of the throat, or oropharyngeal cancer, caused by HPV have increased by an alarming 225% over the last 20 years. 

Why smokers’ outcomes are worse than nonsmokers with oropharyngeal cancer and HPV is a focus of research in the lab of Jose Zevallos, MD, Division Chief, Head & Neck Oncologic Surgery. Many of these higher risk patients who smoke or have smoked do not benefit from radiation therapy and conventional chemotherapy.

The Zevallos lab is researching the biologic basis for worse outcomes, with the hopes of identifying treatment  unique to higher risk patients including more personalized therapy based on their smoking history and tumor biology, thereby improving outcomes.

Dr. Zevallos, along with Dr. Angela Mazul, epidemiologist in our Division of Head and Neck Surgery, and colleagues from the University of North Carolina, LSU, and the University of Tennessee, recently completed the largest genomic analysis of head and neck cancer mutations ever conducted.  They demonstrate novel mutations and viral structural characteristics associated with worse outcomes in smokers with throat cancer and HPV (also called HPV (+) OPSCC) that could help guide treatment in the future.  

Zevallos lab received McDonnell Genome Institute grant

The Zevallos lab also recently received a grant from Washington University’s McDonnell Genome Institute to build upon the lab’s previous genomic studies with a focus on the immune response to HPV (+) OPSCC.  This funding allows them to perform comprehensive genomic analyses on 100 HPV (+) oropharyngeal cancers treated at Washington University, including deep sequencing and gene expression analyses focused on antitumor immunity and immune evasion in smokers and nonsmokers.

Dr. Zevallos is grateful for the outstanding research team that makes this exciting work possible, including Zixing Liu, PhD, Angela Mazul, PhD, MPH, Paul Zolkind, MD, Ricardo Rodriguez, MD, and Colleen Richmond, RN, MPH.