HPV-associated head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HPV+HNSCC) is the most common HPV-associated malignancy in the United States and continues to increase in incidence. Current diagnostic approaches for HPV+HNSCC rely on tissue biopsy followed by histomorphologic assessment and detection of HPV indirectly by p16 IHC. Such approaches are invasive and have variable sensitivity.

Experimental Design:

We conducted a prospective observational study in 140 subjects (70 cases and 70 controls) to test the hypothesis that a noninvasive diagnostic approach for HPV+HNSCC would have improved diagnostic accuracy, lower cost, and shorter diagnostic interval compared with standard approaches. Blood was collected, processed for circulating tumor HPV DNA (ctHPVDNA), and analyzed with custom ddPCR assays for HPV genotypes 16, 18, 33, 35, and 45. Diagnostic performance, cost, and diagnostic interval were calculated for standard clinical workup and compared with a noninvasive approach using ctHPVDNA combined with cross-sectional imaging and physical examination findings.


Sensitivity and specificity of ctHPVDNA for detecting HPV+HNSCC were 98.4% and 98.6%, respectively. Sensitivity and specificity of a composite noninvasive diagnostic using ctHPVDNA and imaging/physical examination were 95.1% and 98.6%, respectively. Diagnostic accuracy of this noninvasive approach was significantly higher than standard of care (Youden index 0.937 vs. 0.707, P = 0.0006). Costs of noninvasive diagnostic were 36% to 38% less than standard clinical workup and the median diagnostic interval was 26 days less.


A noninvasive diagnostic approach for HPV+HNSCC demonstrated improved accuracy, reduced cost, and a shorter time to diagnosis compared with standard clinical workup and could be a viable alternative in the future.

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