Background: Hematological side effects are not generally expected due to radiotherapy involving limited radiation fields; however, patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCH and N) receiving radiation therapy frequently have chronic intraoral infections. Xerostomia has been implicated as a cause of it, but local or systemic immune alterations are not usually considered.
Methods: With the purpose of evaluating the impact of radiotherapy treatment to different anatomic sites on immune function, 70 patients were evaluated during and after radiotherapy: 50 cases with SCCH and N, 10 with squamous cell carcinoma of the uterine cervix (SCCUC) and 10 patients with central nervous system tumors (CNS). We analyzed lymphocyte counts and T-cell subsets, and over time, their association with the presence of intracellular infections and disease-free survival.
Results: Severe lymphopenia was observed in patients with SCCUC and SCCH and N by the fifth week of treatment. Patients with CNS tumors developed mild lymphopenia. In patients with SCCH and N and UC, lower counts were seen in B cells and total T lymphocyte counts including both CD4(+) and CD8(+) cell subsets. The patients with SCCUC recovered lymphocyte counts by the 24th month but T-cell subsets lagged behind. None of the SCCH and N patients had fully recovered by 60 months of follow-up. Recurrence correlates with low lymphocyte counts.
Discussion: This work highlights the vulnerability of the head and neck area to the impact of radiotherapy as a reservoir of lymphoid cells. The possibility of recovery as a consequence of thymopoiesis and/or peripheral clonal expansion may limit the antigen-specific recognition of relevant tumor or microbial antigens and cause significant and prolonged immune alterations that may impact long-term survival.