Background: Inhibition of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, may be critical both in the development of cancer and in determining response to therapy. The authors examined the expression of two related apoptotic inhibitors, Bcl-2 and Bcl-xL, in pretreatment biopsies from a series of 42 patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck. The observed pattern of apoptotic inhibitor expression was compared with that of the p53 gene product, another factor implicated in carcinogenesis and therapeutic responsiveness.
Methods: Formalin fixed, paraffin embedded tumor biopsies from 42 patients with locally advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck were analyzed by immunohistochemistry using antibodies specific for Bcl-xL, Bcl-2, and p53. Measures of clinical outcome, including disease specific survival and overall survival, were compared among the groups.
Results: The majority of the tumors demonstrated enhanced expression of either Bcl-2 or Bcl-xL compared with surrounding normal epithelium. Fifty-two percent of the tumors had up-regulated Bcl-xL, and 17% had up-regulated Bcl-2. There was no overlap between these groups. Expression of Bcl-2, but not Bcl-xL, was correlated with improved disease specific survival. Immunohistochemically detectable p53 expression (48% of tumors) was not found to correlate with expression of either Bcl-xL or Bcl-2 and, in this series, was not a predictor of clinical outcome.
Conclusions: These results suggest that disruption of apoptotic control pathways is an important event in the evolution of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck. A common mechanism for this disruption involves overexpression of Bcl-xL, Patients whose tumors demonstrate Bcl-2 positivity, even with locoregionally advanced disease, appear to have a high likelihood of cure with aggressive combined modality therapy and may be treated successfully with less toxic therapy.