The abundance of particular bacteria in the oral microbiome may affect one’s risk for head and neck cancer, according to a study published in JAMA Oncology.1

Smoking, alcohol use, and human papillomavirus (HPV) status are each risk factors for head and neck cancer, the most common variety of which is head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). There is, however, also evidence that the diverse bacterial community in the human mouth plays a role in HNSCC development.

For this prospective study of 2 large cohorts (the American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort and the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial), researchers evaluated oral microbiota samples from 129 patients with HNSCC and 254 controls to determine whether any link exists between particular bacteria and HNSCC risk.

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Patients and controls were similar in age, gender, and ethnicity; patients with HNSCC were, however, more likely to be smokers, drinkers, and positive for HPV-16 in oral samples.

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Greater abundance of Actinobacteria was linked to a greater HNSCC risk (fold change [FC], 1.21), though this finding was not robust.

Greater abundance of Corynebacterium (FC, 0.58) and of Kingella (FC, 0.63) were, however, associated with a reduced HNSCC risk. This risk persisted regardless of smoking, drinking, and HPV status. The authors noted that these bacteria are “functionally related to xenobiotic biodegradation and metabolism pathways, including capacity to metabolize several toxicants found in cigarette smoke.”

The authors concluded that the presence of Corynebacterium and Kingella in the oral microbiome may affect HNSCC risk, and noted that these “findings may have implications for HNSCC prevention in conjunction with other control measures.”


  1. Hayes RB, Ahn J, Fan X, et al. Association of oral microbiome with risk for incident head and neck squamous cell cancer. JAMA Oncol. 2018 Jan 11. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2017.4777 [Epub ahead of print]