B Cells Improve Overall Survival in HPV-Associated Squamous Cell Carcinomas and Are Activated by Radiation and PD-1 Blockade

Clin Cancer Res. 2020 Jul 1;26(13):3345-3359. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-19-3211. Epub 2020 Mar 19.


Purpose: To characterize the role of B cells on human papilloma virus (HPV)-associated cancer patient outcomes and determine the effects of radiation and PD-1 blockade on B-cell populations.

Experimental design: Tumor RNA-sequencing data from over 800 patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) and cervical cancer, including a prospective validation cohort, was analyzed to study the impact of B-cell gene expression on overall survival (OS). A novel murine model of HPV+ HNSCC was used to study the effects of PD-1 blockade and radiotherapy on B-cell activation, differentiation, and clonality including analysis by single-cell RNA-sequencing and B-cell receptor (BCR)-sequencing. Human protein microarray was then used to quantify B-cell-mediated IgG and IgM antibodies to over 16,000 proteins in the serum of patients treated on a clinical trial with PD-1 blockade.

Results: RNA-sequencing identified CD19 and IGJ as novel B-cell prognostic biomarkers for 3-year OS (HR, 0.545; P < 0.001). PD-1 blockade and radiotherapy enhance development of memory B cells, plasma cells, and antigen-specific B cells. BCR-sequencing found that radiotherapy enhances B-cell clonality, decreases CDR3 length, and induces B-cell somatic hypermutation. Single-cell RNA-sequencing identified dramatic increases in B-cell germinal center formation after PD-1 blockade and radiotherapy. Human proteome array revealed enhanced IgG and IgM antibody responses in patients who derived clinical benefit but not those with progressive disease after treatment with PD-1 blockade.

Conclusions: These findings establish a key role for B cells in patient outcomes and responses to PD-1 blockade in HPV-associated squamous cell carcinomas and demonstrate the need for additional diagnostics and therapeutics targeting B cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • B-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Biomarkers
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / drug therapy
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / etiology*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / mortality*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymphocyte Activation / drug effects*
  • Lymphocyte Activation / radiation effects*
  • Mice
  • Papillomavirus Infections / complications*
  • Papillomavirus Infections / virology
  • Prognosis
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Radiotherapy
  • Survival Analysis
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Biomarkers
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor