Patient derived ex vivo tissue slice cultures demonstrate a profound DNA double-strand break repair defect in HPV-positive oropharyngeal head and neck cancer

Radiother Oncol. 2022 Mar;168:138-146. doi: 10.1016/j.radonc.2022.01.017. Epub 2022 Jan 29.

Abstract

Background: HPV-positive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx (OPSCC) are more sensitive towards radiation than HPV-negative OPSCC. Two main theories exist regarding the underlying mechanism. Stronger lymphocyte infiltration points to an enhanced immunogenicity, whereas data from HPV-positive HNSCC cell lines suggest an enhanced cellular radiosensitivity based on a defect in DNA double-strand break (DSB) repair. The critical limitation of the latter theory is that the evidence was largely derived from a small number of established HPV-positive HNSCC cell lines.

Methods and materials: Fresh patient-derived OPSCC samples were cut in 400 µm sections and cultured on cell culture inserts. Slice cultures were irradiated, in part combined with ATM inhibition, and fixed and frozen after 2 and 24 h. DSBs were analyzed by quantification of 53BP1 foci in nuclei co-stained with the SCC marker p63 via immunofluorescence microscopy.

Results: Ex vivo OPSCC tumor slice cultures maintained stable oxygenation and proliferation characteristics for at least 3 days. Areas of p63-positivity in immunofluorescence microscopy matched histologically confirmed tumor cell areas in serial sections, indicating the suitability of p63 as a tumor cell marker. p63-positive nuclei in HPV-positive OPSCC tissues (n = 14) showed profoundly elevated numbers of residual radiation-induced DSBs as compared to those from HPV-negative OPSCC (n = 12) (3 Gy: on average 4.9 vs. 1.2 foci per nucleus; p < 0.0001). Within the HPV-positive subgroup, samples derived from patients with a smoking history of less than 10 pack years demonstrated higher residual DSBs as compared to those derived from patients with 10 or more pack years (3 Gy: on average 6.5 vs. 3.2 foci per nucleus; p = 0.0105). Additional ATM inhibition resulted in a substantial increase in residual foci in all 4 HPV-negative samples tested but strikingly only in 2 out of 11 HPV-positive samples.

Conclusions: In summary, our data provide robust, cell line-independent experimental evidence for an intrinsic DSB repair deficiency in HPV-positive OPSCC, strongly suggesting a meaningful contribution to the enhanced clinical radiosensitivity. The reduced effectiveness of ATM inhibition indicates a defect in the ATM-orchestrated DNA damage response. Lower numbers of residual 53BP1 nuclear foci in the ex vivo assay may identify HPV-positive patients with effective DSB repair who should potentially be excluded from de-intensification approaches.

Keywords: DNA double-strand break repair; Ex vivo culture; HPV; OPSCC; Radiation sensitivity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • DNA
  • DNA Repair
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / radiotherapy
  • Humans
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms* / radiotherapy
  • Oropharynx / metabolism
  • Papillomavirus Infections* / complications
  • Papillomavirus Infections* / metabolism

Substances

  • DNA