Background: Patients with human papilloma virus (HPV)-related oropharyngeal cancer have a better prognosis than nonvirally associated patients, most likely because of better immune responses. Increased infiltration of T lymphocytes into the oropharyngeal tumor tissue has been observed, but the dynamics of circulating lymphocytes and monocytes are not fully understood. The aim of this study was to understand the population dynamics of circulating monocyte subsets in oropharyngeal cancer (OPC) patients with regard to the clinicopathological parameters and accompanying immunological consequences in view of the CD4/CD8 T cell subset composition, and the expression of checkpoint pathway proteins programmed death-1 (PD-1) and programmed death ligand-1 (PD-L1).
Materials and methods: The abundance of circulating monocyte subsets and peripheral blood CD4/CD8 T cells of oropharyngeal cancer patients and their PD-L1 and PD-1 expression levels were analyzed by flow cytometry.
Results: The studied oropharyngeal cancer patients revealed heterogeneous individual redistributions of CD14++CD16- (classical), CD14++CD16+ (intermediate), and CD14dim+CD16+ (nonclassical) monocyte subsets compared with healthy donors. These differences in monocyte subset alterations were independent in patients with TNM or HPV status but entailed further immunological consequences. Increased percentages of nonclassical monocytes significantly correlated with increased levels of monocytic PD-L1 expression. We observed significantly decreased levels of CD4+ effector T cells, which were accompanied by increased CD4+ effector memory T cells in OPC patients compared with healthy donors, each having a stronger effect in patients with decreased levels of classical monocytes.
Conclusion: We conclude that oropharyngeal cancer, as a malignancy from a lymphoid-tissue-rich anatomical region, has a strong systemic impact on the differentiation and regulation of circulating innate and adaptive immune cells. Further comprehensive investigations are required for the possible future usability of the described immunological alterations as bioliquid parameters for prognosis or therapy response prediction.
Keywords: HPV; PD-L1; T cells; head and neck cancer; monocyte subsets; oropharyngeal cancer.