In the setting of conventional radiation therapy, even when combined with immunotherapy, head and neck cancer often recurs locally and regionally. Elective nodal irradiation (ENI) is commonly employed to decrease regional recurrence. Given our developing understanding that immune cells are radio-sensitive, and that T cell priming occurs in the draining lymph nodes (DLNs), we hypothesize that radiation therapy directed at the primary tumor only will increase the effectiveness of immunotherapies. We find that ENI increases local, distant, and metastatic tumor growth. Multi-compartmental analysis of the primary/distant tumor, the DLNs, and the blood shows that ENI decreases the immune response systemically. Additionally, we find that ENI decreases antigen-specific T cells and epitope spreading. Treating the primary tumor with radiation and immunotherapy, however, fails to reduce regional recurrence, but this is reversed by either concurrent sentinel lymph node resection or irradiation. Our data support using lymphatic sparing radiation therapy for head and neck cancer.
© 2022. The Author(s).