Heterogeneity of the head and neck squamous cell carcinoma immune landscape and its impact on immunotherapy

Madison Canning, Gang Guo, Miao Yu, Calvin Myint, Michael W. Groves, James Kenneth Byrd, Yan Cui

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

199 Scopus citations


Head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) are highly aggressive, multi-factorial tumors in the upper aerodigestive tract affecting more than half a million patients worldwide each year. Alcohol, tobacco, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection are well known causative factors for HNSCCs. Current treatment options for HNSCCs are surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or combinatorial remedies. Over the past decade, despite the marked improvement in clinical outcome of many tumor types, the overall 5-year survival rate of HNSCCs remained ~40-50% largely due to poor availability of effective therapeutic options for HNSCC patients with recurrent disease. Therefore, there is an urgent and unmet need for the identification of specific molecular signatures that better predict the clinical outcomes and markers that serve as better therapeutic targets. With recent technological advances in genomic and epigenetic analyses, our knowledge of HNSCC molecular characteristics and classification has been greatly enriched. Clinical and genomic meta-analysis of multicohort HNSCC gene expression profile has clearly demonstrated that HPV+ and HPV- HNSCCs are not only derived from tissues of different anatomical regions, but also present with different mutation profiles, molecular characteristics, immune landscapes, and clinical prognosis. Here, we briefly review our current understanding of the biology, molecular profile, and immunological landscape of the HPV+ and HPV- HNSCCs with an emphasis on the diversity and heterogeneity of HNSCC clinicopathology and therapeutic responses. After a review of recent advances and specific challenges for effective immunotherapy of HNSCCs, we then conclude with a discussion on the need to further enhance our understanding of the unique characteristics of HNSCC heterogeneity and the plasticity of immune landscape. Increased knowledge regarding the immunological characteristics of HPV+ and HPV- HNSCCs would improve therapeutic targeting and immunotherapy strategies for different subtypes of HNSCCs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number52
JournalFrontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology
Issue numberAPR
StatePublished - 2019


  • Checkpoint blockade
  • Head and neck squamous cell carcinomas
  • Heterogeneity
  • Immune landscape
  • Immunosuppression
  • Immunosurveillance
  • Neoantigen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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