The value of immunotherapy in head and neck cancer

Expert Opin Biol Ther. 2019 Jan;19(1):35-43. doi: 10.1080/14712598.2019.1556637. Epub 2018 Dec 20.


Introduction: Head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC) previously had limited treatment options once patients had progressed on systemic chemotherapy. With recent advances, immunotherapy now plays an important role in the treatment of advanced disease with improved outcomes as compared to cytotoxic chemotherapy.

Areas covered: This article reviews the effects of the immune system and how it influences the development and response to HNSCC therapy. We additionally provide a summary of immunotherapy treatments available as well as their applicable clinical trials that led to their approval.

Expert commentary: The challenges that need to be addressed in order to maximize the benefits of immunotherapy in HNSCC are the selection criteria for immune checkpoint inhibitors and the optimization of combination regimens of immunotherapeutics or chemo-immunotherapy. Furthermore, there remains to be a lack of knowledge in how to incorporate molecular biomarkers as predictors of response to HNSCC immunotherapy.

Keywords: Checkpoint inhibitors; HPV; Head and neck cancer; P16; PD-1; PD-L1; squamous cell cancer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized / therapeutic use
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / immunology
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / pathology
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / metabolism
  • Immune System / virology
  • Immunotherapy*
  • Oncolytic Viruses / immunology
  • Oncolytic Viruses / physiology
  • Papillomaviridae / immunology
  • Papillomaviridae / physiology
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / immunology
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / metabolism
  • Viral Vaccines / immunology


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor
  • Viral Vaccines
  • pembrolizumab