Digital pathology-aided assessment of tumor-infiltrating T lymphocytes in advanced stage, HPV-negative head and neck tumors

Emma J. de Ruiter, Reinout H. de Roest, Ruud H. Brakenhoff, C. René Leemans, Remco de Bree, Chris H.J. Terhaard, Stefan M. Willems

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18 Citations (Scopus)


Aim: This study aimed to evaluate the presence and prognostic value of tumor-infiltrating T cells in the tumor epithelium in advanced stage, HPV-negative head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) patients treated with primary chemoradiotherapy using digital pathology. Methods: Pre-treatment biopsies from 80 oropharyngeal, 52 hypopharyngeal, and 29 laryngeal cancer patients were collected in a tissue microarray (TMA) and immunohistochemically stained for T-cell markers CD3, CD4, CD8, FoxP3, and PD1, and for immune checkpoint PD-L1. For each marker, the number of positive tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) per mm2 tumor epithelium was digitally quantified and correlated to overall survival (OS), disease-free survival (DFS), and locoregional control (LRC), as well as to clinicopathological characteristics. Differences in clinical outcome were estimated using Cox proportional hazard analysis and visualized using Kaplan–Meier curves. Results: The patient cohort had a 3-year OS of 58%, with a median follow-up of 53 months. None of the T-cell markers showed a correlation with OS, DFS or LRC. A low N stage was correlated to a better prognosis (OS: HR 0.39, p = 0.0028, DFS: HR 0.34, p = < 0.001, LRC: HR 0.24, p = 0.008). High TIL counts were more often observed in PD-L1-positive tumors (p < 0.05). Conclusion: This study showed an objective, digital pathology-aided method to assess TILs in the tumor epithelium. However, it did not provide evidence for a prognostic role of the presence of CD3 + , CD4 + , CD8 + , FoxP3 + , and PD1 + TILs in the tumor epithelium of advanced stage, HPV-negative HNSCC patients treated with primary chemoradiotherapy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)581-591
Number of pages11
JournalCancer Immunology, Immunotherapy
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2020


  • Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC)
  • Prognostic biomarkers
  • T cells
  • Tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs)

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