Background: Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICI) are approved for treatment of recurrent or metastatic oropharyngeal head and neck squamous cell carcinoma in the first- and second-line settings. However, only 15-20% of patients benefit from this treatment, a feature increasingly ascribed to the peculiar characteristics of the tumor immune microenvironment (TIME).
Methods: Immune-related gene expression profiling (GEP) and multiplex immunofluorescence (mIF) including spatial proximity analysis, were used to characterize the TIME of 39 treatment-naïve oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinomas (OPSCC) and the corresponding lymph node metastases. GEP and mIF results were correlated with disease-free survival (DFS). HPV-positive tumors disclosed a stronger activation of several immune signalling pathways, as well as a higher expression of genes related to total tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, CD8 T cells, cytotoxic cells and exhausted CD8 cells, than HPV-negative patients. Accordingly, mIF revealed that HPV-positive lesions were heavily infiltrated as compared to HPV-negative counterparts, with a higher density of T cells and checkpoint molecules. CD8+ T cells appeared in closer proximity to tumor cells, CD163+ macrophages and FoxP3+ cells in HPV-positive primary tumors, and related metastases. In HPV-positive lesions, PD-L1 expression was increased as compared to HPV-negative samples, and PD-L1+ tumor cells and macrophages were closer to PD-1+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Considering the whole cohort, a positive correlation was observed between DFS and higher levels of activating immune signatures and T cell responses, higher density of PD-1+ T cells and their closer proximity to tumor cells or PD-L1+ macrophages. HPV-positive patients with higher infiltration of T cells and macrophages had a longer DFS, while CD163+ macrophages had a negative role in prognosis of HPV-negative patients.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that checkpoint expression may reflect an ongoing antitumor immune response. Thus, these observations provide the rationale for the incorporation of ICI in the loco-regional therapy strategies for patients with heavily infiltrated treatment-naïve OPSCC, and for the combination of ICI with tumor-specific T cell response inducers or TAM modulators for the "cold" OPSCC counterparts.
Keywords: Gene expression profile; Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma; Human papillomavirus; Immunotherapy; Multiplex immunofluorescence; Oropharyngeal carcinoma; Sex; Tumor microenvironment.
© 2022. The Author(s).