Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma Treatment in the Era of Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors

Peter L Stern, Tina Dalianis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


While head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC) are marginally decreasing due to the reduction in exposure to the major risk factors, tobacco and alcohol, the incidence of high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV)-positive oropharynx squamous cell carcinomas (OPSCC), especially those in the tonsil and base of tongue subsites, are increasing. Patients with the latter are younger, display a longer overall survival, and show a lower recurrence rate after standard-of-care treatment than those with HPV-negative OPSCC. This may reflect an important role for immune surveillance and control during the natural history of the virally driven tumour development. Immune deviation through acquisition of immune-suppressive factors in the tumour microenvironment (TME) is discussed in relation to treatment response. Understanding how the different immune factors are integrated in the TME battleground offers opportunities for identifying prognostic biomarkers as well as novel therapeutic strategies. OPSCC generally receive surgery or radiotherapy for early-stage tumour treatment, but many patients present with locoregionally advanced disease requiring multimodality therapies which can involve considerable complications. This review focuses on the utilization of newly emerged immune checkpoint inhibitors (PD-1/PD-L1 pathway) for treatment of HNSCC, in particular HPV-positive OPSCC, since they could be less toxic and more efficacious. PD-1/PD-L1 expression in the TME has been extensively investigated as a biomarker of patient response but is yet to provide a really effective means for stratification of treatment. Extensive testing of combinations of therapeutic approaches by types and sequencing will fuel the next evolution of treatment for OPSCC.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1234
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jun 2021


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms/drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors/therapeutic use
  • Prognosis
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck/drug therapy
  • Tumor Microenvironment/immunology

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Manchester Cancer Research Centre


Dive into the research topics of 'Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma Treatment in the Era of Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this