The molecular landscape of head and neck cancer

Nat Rev Cancer. 2018 May;18(5):269-282. doi: 10.1038/nrc.2018.11. Epub 2018 Mar 2.


Head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) arise in the mucosal linings of the upper aerodigestive tract and are unexpectedly heterogeneous in nature. Classical risk factors are smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and in recent years, the role of human papillomavirus (HPV) has emerged, particularly in oropharyngeal tumours. HPV-induced oropharyngeal tumours are considered a separate disease entity, which recently has manifested in an adapted prognostic staging system while the results of de-intensified treatment trials are awaited. Carcinogenesis caused by HPV in the mucosal linings of the upper aerodigestive tract remains an enigma, but with some recent observations, a model can be proposed. In 2015, The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) consortium published a comprehensive molecular catalogue on HNSCC. Frequent mutations of novel druggable oncogenes were not demonstrated, but the existence of a subgroup of genetically distinct HPV-negative head and neck tumours with favourable prognoses was confirmed. Tumours can be further subclassified based on genomic profiling. However, the amount of molecular data is currently overwhelming and requires detailed biological interpretation. It also became apparent that HNSCC is a disease characterized by frequent mutations that create neoantigens, indicating that immunotherapies might be effective. In 2016, the first results of immunotherapy trials with immune checkpoint inhibitors were published, and these may be considered as a paradigm shift in head and neck oncology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / analysis*
  • Cell Cycle / genetics
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase Inhibitor p16 / analysis
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Genes, Tumor Suppressor
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / pathology
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / virology*
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy / methods
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms / virology
  • Papillomavirus Infections / complications*
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / genetics*
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / pathology
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / virology
  • Wnt Signaling Pathway


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • CDKN2A protein, human
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase Inhibitor p16