Immunotherapy of head and neck cancer: current and future considerations

J Oncol. 2009;2009:346345. doi: 10.1155/2009/346345. Epub 2009 Aug 9.


Patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) are at considerable risk for death, with 5-year relative survival rates of approximately 60%. The profound multifaceted deficiencies in cell-mediated immunity that persist in most patients after treatment may be related to the high rates of treatment failure and second primary malignancies. Radiotherapy and chemoradiotherapy commonly have severe acute and long-term side effects on immune responses. The development of immunotherapies reflects growing awareness that certain immune system deficiencies specific to HNSCC and some other cancers may contribute to the poor long-term outcomes. Systemic cell-mediated immunotherapy is intended to activate the entire immune system and mount a systemic and/or locoregional antitumor response. The delivery of cytokines, either by single cytokines, for example, interleukin-2, interleukin-12, interferon-gamma, interferon-alpha, or by a biologic mix of multiple cytokines, such as IRX-2, may result in tumor rejection and durable immune responses. Targeted immunotherapy makes use of monoclonal antibodies or vaccines. All immunotherapies for HNSCC except cetuximab remain investigational, but a number of agents whose efficacy and tolerability are promising have entered phase 2 or phase 3 development.