At the Crossroads of Molecular Biology and Immunology: Molecular Pathways for Immunological Targeting of Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Recent advances in immunotherapy for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) have led to implementation of anti-programmed death receptor 1 (PD-1) immunotherapy to standard of care for recurrent/metastatic HNSCC. However, the majority of tumors do not respond to these therapies, indicating that these tumors are not immunogenic or other immunosuppressive mechanisms might be at play. Aim: Given their role in carcinogenesis as well as in immune modulation, we discuss the relation between the STAT3, PI3K/AKT/mTOR and Wnt signaling pathways to identify potential targets to empower the immune response against HNSCC. Results: We focused on three pathways. First, STAT3 is often overactivated in HNSCC and induces the secretion of immunosuppressive cytokines, thereby promoting recruitment of immune suppressive regulatory T cells and myeloid-derived suppressor cells to the tumor microenvironment (TME) while hampering the development of dendritic cells. Second, PI3K/AKT/mTOR mutational activation results in increased tumor proliferation but could also be important in HNSCC immune evasion due to the downregulation of components in the antigen-processing machinery. Third, canonical Wnt signaling is overactivated in >20% of HNSCC and could be an interesting pleotropic target since it is related to increased tumor cell proliferation and the development of an immunosuppressive HNSCC TME. Conclusion: The molecular pathology of HNSCC is complex and heterogeneous, varying between sites and disease etiology (i.e., HPV). The in HNSCC widely affected signaling pathways STAT3, PI3K/AKT/mTOR and Wnt are implicated in some of the verymechanisms underlying immune evasion of HNSCC, thereby representing promising targets to possibly facilitate immunotherapy response.

Original languageEnglish
Article number647980
Pages (from-to)647980
JournalFrontiers in oral health
Publication statusPublished - 5 Mar 2021


  • head and neck cancer
  • immune microenvironment
  • immunotherapy
  • molecular targets
  • signaling pathways

Cite this