Patients with oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) caused by human papilloma virus (HPV) exhibit a better prognosis than those with HPV-negative OPSCC. This study investigated the distinct molecular pathways that delineate HPV-negative from -positive OPSCC to identify biologically relevant therapeutic targets. Bulk mRNA from 23 HPV-negative and 39 -positive OPSCC tumors (n = 62) was sequenced to uncover the transcriptomic profiles. Differential expression followed by gene set enrichment analysis was performed to outline the top enriched biological process in the HPV-negative compared to -positive entity. INHBA, the highest overexpressed gene in the HPV-negative tumor, was knocked down. Functional assays (migration, proliferation, cell death, stemness) were conducted to confirm the target’s oncogenic role. Correlation analyses to reveal its impact on the tumor microenvironment were performed. We revealed that epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is the most enriched process in HPV-negative compared to -positive OPSCC, with INHBA (inhibin beta A subunit) being the top upregulated gene. INHBA knockdown downregulated the expression of EMT transcription factors and attenuated migration, proliferation, stemness, and cell death resistance of OPSCC cells. We uncovered that INHBA associates with a pro-tumor microenvironment by negatively correlating with anti-tumor CD8+ T and B cells while positively correlating with pro-tumor M1 macrophages. We identified three miRNAs that are putatively involved in repressing INHBA expression. Our results indicate that the upregulation of INHBA is tumor-promoting. We propose INHBA as an attractive therapeutic target for the treatment of INHBA-enriched tumors in HPV-negative OPSCC patients to ameliorate prognosis.

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