Explanations for the differences in clinical outcomes in head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) when compared by similar tumor location, stage, nodal status, human papillomavirus (HPV) status, and patient history remain elusive. Cell lines are an excellent tool of study for understanding the in vitro properties of cancers. However, HNSCC cell lines from progression-free and/or HPV-positive tumors are very rare. Here we studied HPV-positive and HPV-negative University of Michigan squamous cell carcinoma cell lines (2 HPV-, 2 HPV16+, 1 HPV18+) coming from donors with nonoropharyngeal sites and variant clinical outcomes. Cell morphology and proliferation were assessed, and immunofluorescence and Western blotting evaluated tumor biomarkers (TP53, RB1, p16, HPV E6 and E7, EGFR, Cyclin D1, Ki-67, and beta-catenin). Slow in vitro proliferation, long lag phase before exponential proliferation, lower maximal cell density, and higher wild-type TP53 expression were common to cell lines from patients who experienced long-term disease-free survival. In contrast, shorter lag phases, rapid proliferation, and high maximal cell density were observed in cell lines from patients who experienced aggressive tumor progression leading to death. Membrane-bound beta-catenin was present in all cell lines, but nuclear beta-catenin was associated with the more lethal cancers. In summary, the HNSCC cell lines present key characteristics, independent of primary etiologies and HPV infection, that mirror the behavior of the tumors from which they were derived.
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