Differential responses to immune checkpoint inhibitor dictated by pre-existing differential immune profiles in squamous cell carcinomas caused by same initial oncogenic drivers

J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 2022 Apr 2;41(1):123. doi: 10.1186/s13046-022-02337-x.


Background: While immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICI) were approved for head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs), the response rate remains relatively low. Mechanisms underlying ICI unresponsiveness versus sensitivity are not fully understood.

Method: To better delineate differential responses to ICI treatment, we employed mouse SCC models, termed KPPA tumors that were caused by deleting p53 and hyperactivating PIK3CA, two most frequently mutated genes in human HNSCCs. We transplanted two KPPA tumor lines (TAb2 versus TCh3) into C57BL/6 recipients and examined the immune tumor microenvironment using flow cytometry. Furthermore, we employed single-cell RNA sequencing to identify the difference in tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs).

Results: We found that different KPPA tumors exhibited heterogeneous immune profiles pre-existing treatment that dictated their sensitivity or unresponsiveness to anti-PD-L1. Unresponsive TAb2 tumors were highly enriched with functional tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs), especially M2-TAMs. In contrast, sensitive TCh3 tumors contained more CD8 TILs with better effector functions. TAb2 tumor cells drastically expanded F4/80+ TAMs from bone marrow precursors, requiring CSF1 and VEGF. Consistently, a higher combined expression of VEGF-C and CSF1 predicts worse survival in PIK3CAAmp/TP53Mutated HNSCC patients. Unresponsive TAb2 tumors upregulated distinct signaling pathways that correlate with aggressive tumor phenotypes. While anti-PD-L1 did not affect the TME of TAb2 tumors, it significantly increased the number of CD8 TILs in TCh3 tumors.

Conclusions: We uncovered tumor-intrinsic differences that may underlie the differential responses to ICI by establishing and employing two SCC tumor lines, TAb2 vs. TCh3, both of which harbor TP53 deletion and PIK3CA hyperactivation. Our study indicates the limitation of stratifying cancers according to their genetic alterations and suggests that evaluating HNSCC tumor-intrinsic cues along with immune profiles in the TME may help better predict ICI responses. Our experimental models may provide a platform for pinpointing tumor-intrinsic differences underlying an immunosuppressive TME in HNSCCs and for testing combined immunotherapies targeting either tumor-specific or TAM-specific players to improve ICI efficacy.

Keywords: Cancer immunotherapy; Head and neck cancers; Immune tumor microenvironment; PIK3CA hyperactivation; Tumor infiltrating lymphocytes; p53 mutations.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell* / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell* / pathology
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms*
  • Humans
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Oncogenes
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors