Discrimination of Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma Patients and Healthy Adults by 10-Color Flow Cytometry: Development of a Score Based on Leukocyte Subsets

Cancers (Basel). 2019 Jun 12;11(6):814. doi: 10.3390/cancers11060814.


Background: Leukocytes in peripheral blood (PB) are prognostic biomarkers in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cancer patients (HNSCC-CPs), but differences between HNSCC-CPs and healthy adults (HAs) are insufficiently described.

Methods: 10-color flow cytometry (FCM) was used for in-depth immunophenotyping of PB samples of 963 HAs and 101 therapy-naïve HNSCC-CPs. Absolute (AbsCC) and relative cell counts (RelCC) of leukocyte subsets were determined. A training cohort (TC) of 43 HNSCC-CPs and 43 HAs, propensity score (PS)-matched according to age, sex, alcohol, and smoking, was used to develop a score consecutively approved in a validation cohort (VC).

Results: Differences in AbsCC were detected in leukocyte subsets (p < 0.001), but had low power in discriminating HNSCC-CPs and HAs. Consequently, RelCC of nine leukocyte subsets in the TC were used to calculate 36 ratios; receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves defined optimum cut-off values. Binary classified data were combined in a score based on four ratios: monocytes-to-granulocytes (MGR), classical monocytes-to-monocytes (clMMR), monocytes-to-lymphocytes (MLR), and monocytes-to-T-lymphocytes (MTLR); ≥3 points accurately discriminate HNSCC-CPs and HAs in the PS-matched TC (p = 2.97 × 10-17), the VC (p = 4.404 × 10-178), and both combined (p = 7.74 × 10-199).

Conclusions: RelCC of leukocyte subsets in PB of HNSCC-CPs differ significantly from those of HAs. A score based on MGR, clMMR, MLR, and MTLR allows for accurate discrimination.

Keywords: cancer biomarker; classical monocytes; head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC); leukocyte subsets; monocytes-to-granulocytes ratio (MGR); monocytes-to-lymphocytes ratio (MLR); multicolor flow cytometry; peripheral blood; predictive value; propensity score matching.