Prognostic and Predictive Factors in Advanced Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Int J Mol Sci. 2021 May 7;22(9):4981. doi: 10.3390/ijms22094981.


Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is a heterogeneous disease arising from the mucosa of the upper aerodigestive tract. Despite multimodality treatments approximately half of all patients with locally advanced disease relapse and the prognosis of patients with recurrent or metastatic HNSCC is dismal. The introduction of checkpoint inhibitors improved the treatment options for these patients and pembrolizumab alone or in combination with a platinum and fluorouracil is now the standard of care for first-line therapy. However, approximately only one third of unselected patients respond to this combination and the response rate to checkpoint inhibitors alone is even lower. This shows that there is an urgent need to improve prognostication and prediction of treatment benefits in patients with HNSCC. In this review, we summarize the most relevant risk factors in the field and discuss their roles and limitations. The human papilloma virus (HPV) status for patients with oropharyngeal cancer and the combined positive score are the only biomarkers consistently used in clinical routine. Other factors, such as the tumor mutational burden and the immune microenvironment have been highly studied and are promising but need validation in prospective trials.

Keywords: biomarker; checkpoint inhibitors; combined positive score; head and neck squamous cell carcinoma; human papilloma virus; tumor microenvironment; tumor mutational burden.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • B7-H1 Antigen / metabolism
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / genetics
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / immunology
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Nicotiana
  • Prognosis
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / genetics
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / immunology
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / pathology*


  • B7-H1 Antigen