Immune cell infiltration in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma and patient outcome: a retrospective study

Acta Oncol. 2018 Sep;57(9):1165-1172. doi: 10.1080/0284186X.2018.1445287. Epub 2018 Mar 1.


Background: Human papillomavirus (HPV) prevalence in oropharynx squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) is on the rise. HPV-linked OPSCCs represent a distinct clinical entity with a better treatment response and patient survival compared to tumors not linked to HPV. An emerging role in treatment response has been attributed to immune cell infiltration in human tumors. In this study, we investigated immune cell infiltration in human SCC of the head and neck region and its relation to overall survival after treatment with surgery (with or without radiotherapy) or concomitant chemo (or cetuximab)-radiotherapy.

Materials and methods: Paraffin-embedded tumor samples of 136 patients with SCC of the larynx, hypopharynx, oral cavity and oropharynx were processed for immunohistochemical detection of CD3+ T-cells, CD8+ cytotoxic T-cells, CD20+ B-cells and CD163+ M2 macrophages within the tumor infiltrated area. Clinico-pathological data were analyzed as a function of tumor location and p16-status. Immune cell infiltration was represented as stained area on the whole tumor infiltrated area, compared for the different tumor locations and correlated to patient survival.

Results: Patients with oropharynx tumors expressing significant p16 levels (p16-sg) had a 5-year overall survival of 85% compared to 43% for patients with no significant p16 (p16-ns) expression (HR: 0.3 - 95% CI: 0.1-0.6). Median immune cell infiltration (T- and B-lymphocytes) was significantly elevated in p16-sg oropharyngeal tumors, compared to p16-ns oropharyngeal tumors and to all other head and neck tumor locations. No difference in CD163+ macrophage infiltration was observed across the different patient groups. In the whole population, a high infiltration by CD3+ T-lymphocytes was associated to a significantly (p = .03; HR: 0.6, 95% CI: 0.4-0.97) better overall survival.

Conclusion: Oropharynx cancer with significant p16 expression showed an increased overall survival and elevated T- and B-lymphocyte infiltration, which suggests a prognostic relevance of immune cell infiltration.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Chemoradiotherapy
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / pathology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oral Surgical Procedures
  • Prognosis
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / diagnosis*
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / immunology*
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / mortality
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / therapy*
  • Survival Analysis
  • Treatment Outcome