Our goal was to demonstrate that lymphatic drainage fluid (lymph) has improved sensitivity in quantifying postoperative minimal residual disease (MRD) in locally advanced human papillomavirus (HPV)-associated oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) compared with plasma, and leverage this novel biofluid for patient risk stratification.

Experimental Design:

We prospectively collected lymph samples from neck drains of 106 patients with HPV (+) OPSCC, along with 67 matched plasma samples, 24 hours after surgery. PCR and next-generation sequencing were used to quantify cancer-associated cell-free HPV (cf-HPV) and tumor-informed variants in lymph and plasma. Next, lymph cf-HPV and variants were compared with TNM stage, extranodal extension (ENE), and composite definitions of high-risk pathology. We then created a machine learning model, informed by lymph MRD and clinicopathologic features, to compare with progression-free survival (PFS).


Postoperative lymph was enriched with cf-HPV compared with plasma (P < 0.0001) and correlated with pN2 stage (P = 0.003), ENE (P < 0.0001), and trial-defined pathologic risk criteria (mean AUC = 0.78). In addition, the lymph mutation number and variant allele frequency were higher in pN2 ENE (+) necks than in pN1 ENE (+) (P = 0.03, P = 0.02) or pN0-N1 ENE (−) (P = 0.04, P = 0.03, respectively). The lymph MRD-informed risk model demonstrated inferior PFS in high-risk patients (AUC = 0.96, P < 0.0001).


Variant and cf-HPV quantification, performed in 24-hour postoperative lymph samples, reflects single- and multifeature high-risk pathologic criteria. Incorporating lymphatic MRD and clinicopathologic feature analysis can stratify PFS early after surgery in patients with HPV (+) head and neck cancer.

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Supplementary data