The presence of “matted” lymph nodes in persons with oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)—that is, nodes that are connected together—was associated with a 3-year survival rate of 69%, compared with 94% among patients without matted nodes. Such a marker could help clinicians identify patients who are at heightened risk for metastasis and who might benefit from additional systemic therapy. Conversely, a person without matted nodes could be a candidate for less therapy, which would in turn reduce uncomfortable side effects.

The study, led by Matthew E. Spector, MD, a resident in the department of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, focused on 78 previously untreated persons with stage III or IV oropharyngeal SCC. All patients were undergoing chemotherapy in combination with intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) as part of a clinical trial.

The 3-year disease-specific survival rate for the 16 patients presenting with matted nodes was 69%, compared with 94% among the 61 other patients. Matted nodes were found to be a poor prognostic factor independent of tumor classification, human papillomavirus (HPV) status, epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), and smoking status. Matted nodes did appear to be an especially strong indicator of increased risk among HPV-positive persons, despite the fact that these patients had better overall outcomes than did those who were HPV-negative. The best outcomes were seen among HPV-positive nonsmokers.

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The investigators, who reported their findings in Head & Neck, say the reasons for the survival differences between persons with and without matted nodes are unclear.