CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in sentinel nodes exhibit distinct pattern of PD-1, CD69, and HLA-DR expression compared to tumor tissue in oral squamous cell carcinoma

Cancer Sci. 2021 Mar;112(3):1048-1059. doi: 10.1111/cas.14816. Epub 2021 Feb 15.


Anticancer immunotherapies have revolutionized cancer management, yet the effect of systemic anti-programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) treatment is predominantly studied in tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs). Its impact on PD-1 expressing cells in tumor-draining lymph nodes (TDLNs) is not well understood and yet to be explored. Thus, further research aiming for better understanding of the PD-1 pathway not only in tumor tissue but also in TDLNs is warranted. In this study, we investigated the expression of PD-1, CD69, and HLA-DR on CD4+ and CD8+ T cells by flow cytometry analysis of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), TDLNs, and tumor samples from patients with oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC). Our data showed that both helper and cytotoxic T lymphocytes in OSCC tissue were highly activated and expressed high level of PD-1 (over 70% positivity). Lymphocytes in TDLNs and peripheral blood expressed significantly lower levels of PD-1 and other activation markers compared to TILs. Moreover, we demonstrated that a significant fraction of PD-1 negative TILs expressed high levels of human leukocyte antigen - DR isotype and CD69. In contrast, PD-1 negative cells in TDLNs and PBMCs scarcely expressed the aforementioned activation markers. Furthermore, we proved that patients with a high percentage of CD3+ PD-1+ cells in tumor-draining lymph nodes had significantly lower disease-free and overall survival rates (log-rank test P = .0272 and P = .0276, respectively). Taken together, we proved that flow cytometry of lymph nodes in OSCC is feasible and may be used to investigate whether PD-1 levels in TDLNs correspond with survival and potentially with response to anti-PD-1 therapy. Such knowledge may ultimately help guide anti-PD-1 treatment.

Keywords: PD-1; head and neck cancer; metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma; sentinel node; tumor-draining lymph nodes.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antigens, CD / analysis
  • Antigens, CD / metabolism
  • Antigens, Differentiation, T-Lymphocyte / analysis
  • Antigens, Differentiation, T-Lymphocyte / metabolism
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / metabolism*
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Flow Cytometry
  • HLA-DR Antigens / analysis
  • HLA-DR Antigens / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lectins, C-Type / analysis
  • Lectins, C-Type / metabolism
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / immunology
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / metabolism
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mouth Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Mouth Neoplasms / pathology
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / analysis
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor / metabolism
  • Sentinel Lymph Node / cytology
  • Sentinel Lymph Node / immunology*
  • Sentinel Lymph Node / pathology
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / immunology*
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / pathology


  • Antigens, CD
  • Antigens, Differentiation, T-Lymphocyte
  • CD69 antigen
  • HLA-DR Antigens
  • Lectins, C-Type
  • PDCD1 protein, human
  • Programmed Cell Death 1 Receptor