Hepatitis C May Increase Risk for Head and Neck Cancer

Patients with hepatitis C were two to five times more likely to develop some types of head and neck cancers, according to a study conducted by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Patients with hepatitis C were two to five times more likely to develop some types of head and neck cancers, according to a study conducted by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

The study looked at 10 years of data on patients with new-onset primary or pharyngeal or nonoropharyngeal head or neck cancers who had been tested for the hepatitis C virus, according to an MD Anderson news release. The findings were published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

In 2009, MD Anderson opened the first clinic at a comprehensive cancer center in the United States to focus on unmet needs of patients with cancer who were also infected with HCV, stated the release.

“Obviously, a hepatitis C infection could impact how patients respond to their cancer therapy,” Harrys A. Torres, MD, the clinic’s director and an associate professor in the department of infectious disease, infection control and employee health at MD Anderson, stated in the release. “We also realized that many of our hepatitis patients were excluded from clinical trials. Now that many with hepatitis C can be cured, it is important that we first address and potentially cure the virus, so that they can have access to necessary cancer therapy.”

Hepatitis C is a bloodborne virus that if left unchecked can seriously damage the liver and possibly lead to liver cancer. New antiviral drugs introduced to the market in the last few years have high cure rates and work faster with fewer side effects than traditional treatments for the virus.

While liver cancers and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have documented associations with the HCV, according to Torres, he and researchers at his clinic were surprised to observe a number of head and neck cancer patients who tested positive for the virus, the release stated.

“With this observation we began to wonder if there was an undiscovered correlation between the two,” said Torres. “Our findings tell us that the association between hepatitis C and oropharyngeal and nonoropharyngeal cancers is as high as its link to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

For the retrospective, case-controlled study, researchers identified 34,545 MD Anderson Cancer Center patients who had been tested for HCV between 2004 and 2014. They included 409 head and neck cancer patients as case subjects and 694 control patients with diagnosed smoking-related cancer, a key element to the research since smoking is a major risk factor for head and neck cancers, according to Torres.

Study results indicated that 14% of patients with oropharyngeal cancers and 20% of patients with nonoropharyngeal cancer tested positive for HCV antibodies, compared to 6.5% in the control group, the release states. The researchers determined that patients with HCV had an increased risk of developing specific head and neck cancers 2.4 times higher for oral cavity cancers, 2.04 times higher for oropharynx cancers and 4.96 times higher for larynx cancers when compared to the control group.

The findings support the importance of screening for HCV and could also impact treatment approaches for patients who have already developed cancer, Torres said in the release.

“With these findings, MD Anderson plans to screen and treat all head and cancer patients with HCV and follow their outcomes,” stated the release. “Educating both the general hepatology and infectious disease communities — those primarily treating patients with HCV — is critical so they understand HCV impacts not only the liver, but is a systemic infection.”