Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSC) exhibits genetic heterogeneity in etiologies, tumor sites, and biological processes, which significantly impact therapeutic strategies and prognosis. While the influence of human papillomavirus on clinical outcomes is established, the molecular subtypes determining additional treatment options for HNSC remain unclear and inconsistent. This study aims to identify distinct HNSC molecular subtypes to enhance diagnosis and prognosis accuracy. In this study, we collected three HNSC microarrays (n = 306) from the Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO), and HNSC RNA-Seq data (n = 566) from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) to identify differentially expressed genes (DEGs) and validate our results. Two scoring methods, representative score (RS) and perturbative score (PS), were developed for DEGs to summarize their possible activation functions and influence in tumorigenesis. Based on the RS and PS scoring, we selected candidate genes to cluster TCGA samples for the identification of molecular subtypes in HNSC. We have identified 289 up-regulated DEGs and selected 88 genes (called HNSC88) using the RS and PS scoring methods. Based on HNSC88 and TCGA samples, we determined three HNSC subtypes, including one HPV-associated subtype, and two HPV-negative subtypes. One of the HPV-negative subtypes showed a relationship to smoking behavior, while the other exhibited high expression in tumor immune response. The Kaplan–Meier method was used to compare overall survival among the three subtypes. The HPV-associated subtype showed a better prognosis compared to the other two HPV-negative subtypes (log rank, p = 0.0092 and 0.0001; hazard ratio, 1.36 and 1.39). Additionally, within the HPV-negative group, the smoking-related subgroup exhibited worse prognosis compared to the subgroup with high expression in immune response (log rank, p = 0.039; hazard ratio, 1.53). The HNSC88 not only enables the identification of HPV-associated subtypes, but also proposes two potential HPV-negative subtypes with distinct prognoses and molecular signatures. This study provides valuable strategies for summarizing the roles and influences of genes in tumorigenesis for identifying molecular signatures and subtypes of HNSC.
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