Study author Dr. Gregory T. Wolf of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center says levels of an immune cell are higher in head and neck cancer patients whose tumors are linked to the human papillomavirus.
"In the past, we would give toxic chemotherapy to a patient, look at how the tumor responded and then decide whether the patient needed surgery or radiation," Wolf says in a statement.
"This study suggests we can look in the microscope, measure the level of these immune cells and, based on that, select a treatment that is going to be potentially less toxic for the patient and most effective at curing the cancer."
The study involved 66 patients with oropharyngeal cancer -- cancers of the tonsils and the tongue base.
Those patients who were HPV-positive had higher levels of a subset of T-lymphocyte cells -- a type of immune cell that is responsible for killing tumor cells.
"When we looked at how successful chemotherapy and radiation were, the levels of those killer T-lymphocyte cells predicted who was going to do well," Wolf said.
"That ability to predict response was even better than when we look at whether the tumors were HPV-positive or negative."
The findings are to be presented Thursday at the American Head and Neck Society annual meeting.