It has now become increasingly clear that viruses, which may not be directly oncogenic, can affect the biology of tumors as well as immune behavior against tumors. This has led to a fundamental question: Should tumors associated with viral infection be considered distinct from those without? Typically, viruses activate the host innate immune responses by stimulating pathogen recognition receptors and DNA-sensing pathways, including the stimulator of interferon genes (STING) pathway. However, regulation of the STING pathway in a virus-associated tumor microenvironment is poorly understood. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection within a subset of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC) promotes a unique etiology and clinical outcome. For reasons currently not well understood, patients with HPV+ tumors have a better outcome in terms of both overall survival and reduced risk of recurrence compared with HPV HNSCC. This observation may reflect a greater intrinsic immunogenicity associated with HPV infection, pertaining to innate immune system pathways activated following recognition of viral nucleotides. Here we discuss how HNSCC provides a unique model to study the STING pathway in the context of viral-induced tumor type as well as recent advances in our understanding of this pathway in HSNCC.

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