Relationship between Tumor Mutational Burden, PD-L1, Patient Characteristics, and Response to Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors in Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Cancers (Basel). 2021 Nov 16;13(22):5733. doi: 10.3390/cancers13225733.


Failure to predict response to immunotherapy (IO) limited its benefit in the treatment of head and neck squamous cell cancer (HNSCC) to 20% of patients or less. Biomarkers including tumor mutational burden (TMB) and programmed death ligand-1 (PD-L1) were evaluated as predictors of response to IO, but the results are inconsistent and with a lack of standardization of their methods. In this retrospective study, TMB and PD-L1 were measured by commercially available methodologies and were correlated to demographics, outcome, and response to PD-1 inhibitors. No correlation was found between TMB and PD-L1 levels. High TMB was associated with smoking and laryngeal primaries. PD-L1 was significantly higher in African Americans, patients with earlier stage tumors, nonsmokers, and nonethanol drinkers. Patients with high TMB fared better in univariate and multivariate survival analysis. No correlation was found between PD-L1 expression and prognosis. There was a statistically significant association between PFS and response to IO and TMB. There was no association between response to ICI and PD-L1 in this study, possibly affected by variations in the reporting method. Further studies are needed to characterize the biomarkers for IO in HNSCC, and this study supports further research into the advancement of TMB in prospective studies.

Keywords: HNSCC; PD-L1; TMB; immune checkpoint inhibitors; immunotherapy.