Expression profiles and clinical impact of programmed cell death ligand 1 (PD-L1) and programmed cell death 1 (PD-1) expressing tumour infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) are not elucidated fully. This study evaluates expression patterns in primary HNSCC and related lymph node metastasis and the impact on patients' clinical outcome.
Immunohistochemical staining patterns of PD-L1 and PD-1 were evaluated in 129 specimens of primary HNSCC and 77 lymph node metastases. Results were correlated with patients' clinical data. PD-L1 expression was observed in 36% of primary carcinoma and 33% of lymph node metastasis, and correlates significantly with decreased overall survival (OS) (P = 0.01) and disease-free survival (DFS) (P = 0.001) in oral cavity squamous cell carcinoma patients. PD-L1 expression was associated with presence of lymph node metastasis (P = 0.0223). Infiltration of PD-1-expressing lymphocytes correlates significantly with favourable OS (P = 0.001) and DFS (P = 0.001) in oropharyngeal cancer and hypopharyngeal cancer patients OS (P = 0.007) and DFS (P = 0.001). Presence of PD-1 TILs also correlates significantly with better OS (P = 0.005) and DFS (P = 0) in the human papilloma virus (HPV)-negative cohort. Cox regression multivariate analysis revealed PD-1 TIL expression as an independent prognostic marker for OS (P = 0.004) and DFS (P = 0.001) and T stage was validated as negative prognostic marker for OS (P = 0.011). PD-1-expressing lymphocytes (P = 0.0412) and PD-L1 expression (P = 0.0022) patterns correlate significantly in primary cancers and matched lymph node metastases.
Our results characterise the expression profiles of PD-1 axis proteins in HNSCC which might serve as possible clinical prognostic markers.