Human papillomavirus (HPV)-positive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is biologically distinct from HPV-negative HNSCC. Outside of HPV-status, few tumor-intrinsic variables have been identified that correlate to improved survival. As part of exploratory analysis into the trace elemental composition of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC), we performed elemental quanitification by X-ray fluorescence microscopy (XFM) on a small cohort (n = 32) of patients with HPV-positive and -negative OPSCC and identified in HPV-positive cases increased zinc (Zn) concentrations in tumor tissue relative to normal tissue. Subsequent immunohistochemistry of six Zn-binding proteins—zinc-α2-glycoprotein (AZGP1), Lipocalin-1, Albumin, S100A7, S100A8 and S100A9—revealed that only AZGP1 expression significantly correlated to HPV-status (p < 0.001) and was also increased in tumor relative to normal tissue from HPV-positive OPSCC tumor samples. AZGP1 protein expression in our cohort significantly correlated to a prolonged recurrence-free survival (p = 0.029), similar to HNSCC cases from the TCGA (n = 499), where highest AZGP1 mRNA levels correlated to improved overall survival (p = 0.023). By showing for the first time that HPV-positive OPSCC patients have increased intratumoral Zn levels and AZGP1 expression, we identify possible positive prognostic biomarkers in HNSCC as well as possible mechanisms of increased sensitivity to chemoradiation in HPV-positive OPSCC.
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