Distribution of immune cells in head and neck cancer: CD8+ T-cells and CD20+ B-cells in metastatic lymph nodes are associated with favourable outcome in patients with oro- and hypopharyngeal carcinoma

BMC Cancer. 2009 Aug 22;9:292. doi: 10.1186/1471-2407-9-292.


Background: Tumour infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) are generally considered to represent a host immune response directed against tumour antigens. TIL are also increasingly recognised as possible prognostic parameters. However, the effects observed are variable indicating that results cannot be extrapolated from type of tumour to another. Moreover, it has been suggested that primary solid tumours may be ignored by the immune system and that a meaningful immune response is only mounted in regional lymph nodes.

Methods: We have examined the local distribution of immune cells in tumour-related compartments in head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC). In a second step, the prognostic impact of these cells on disease-free survival (DFS) was analysed. A total of 198 tissue cores from 33 patients were evaluated using tissue mircroarray technique and immunohistochemistry. Tumour-infiltrating immune cells were identified using antibodies specific for CD3, CD8, GranzymeB, FoxP3, CD20 and CD68 and quantified using an image analysis system.

Results: We demonstrate a relative expansion of FoxP3+ regulatory T-cells (Treg) and of cytotoxic T-cells among tumour infiltrating T-cells. We also show that intratumoural CD20+ B-cells are significantly more frequent in metastatic deposits than in primary tumours. Furthermore, we observed a reduced number of peritumoural CD8+ T-cells in metastatic lymph nodes as compared to univolved regional nodes suggesting a local down-modulation of cellular immunity. All other immune cells did not show significant alterations in distribution. We did not observe an association of tumour infiltrating immune cells at the primary site with outcome. However, increased numbers of intraepithelial CD8+ TIL in metastatic tumours as well as large numbers of peritumoural B-cells in lymph node metastases were associated with favourable outcome. Unexpectedly, no effect on patient outcome was observed for Treg in any compartment.

Conclusion: Our results suggest that alterations in lymphocyte distribution in regional lymph nodes rather than at the primary tumour site may be relevant for patient prognosis. Moreover, we demonstrate that in addition to cellular immunity humoral immune responses may be clinically relevant in anti-tumour immunity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Antigens, CD20 / immunology
  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • B7-1 Antigen / immunology
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / immunology*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / pathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymph Nodes / immunology
  • Lymph Nodes / pathology
  • Lymphatic Metastasis*
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology*
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / pathology
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / immunology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pharyngeal Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Pharyngeal Neoplasms / pathology


  • Antigens, CD20
  • B7-1 Antigen