Circulating tumour cell expression of immune-markers as prognostic and therapeutic biomarkers in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma: a systematic review and meta-analysis

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Rates of loco-regional recurrence and distant metastasis remain high among head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) patients, despite advancing cancer treatment modalities and therapeutic agents. One area that has generated considerable interest is the immune landscape of the tumour, heralding a wave of immune checkpoint inhibitors with notable efficacy in recurrent/metastatic HNSCC patients. However, HNSCC remains poorly served by biomarkers that can direct treatment in a personalised fashion to target the tumour heterogeneity seen between patients. Detection and analysis of circulating tumour cells (CTCs) in HNSCC has provided a previously unseen view of the metastasis forming cells that are potentially contributing to poor clinical outcomes. In particular, identifying CTC expression of phenotypic and druggable protein markers has allowed CTC sub-populations to be defined that hold prognostic value or are potential therapeutic targets themselves. The aim of this systematic review was to examine the role of CTC immune-marker expression as prognostic/therapeutic biomarkers in HNSCC by evaluating progress to date and discussing areas for future research. Our results highlight how few studies have been able to demonstrate prognostic significance of immune-marker expression in CTCs. As expected, the immune checkpoint PD-L1 was the most widely investigated marker. However, no studies evaluated CTC target immune marker expression in immunotherapy cohorts. Despite these findings, the data presented demonstrate promise that CTCs may be a source of future biomarkers for immunotherapy and will provide valuable information regarding the potential immune evasion of these metastasis forming cells.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8229
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Molecular Sciences
Issue number21
Publication statusPublished - 3 Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding: K.P. is funded by Cancer Research UK and holds a research fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons of England. H.M. is a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Senior Investigator. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR, or the Department of Health and Social Care.


  • Circulating tumour cell
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Immune marker
  • Immunotherapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Catalysis
  • Molecular Biology
  • Spectroscopy
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry


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