Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is an aggressive epithelial malignancy. It is the most common neoplasm arising in the upper aerodigestive tract.
Interleukin (IL) 12 and IL-18 are cytokines which have a major anti-tumour activity via stimulation of a T-helper type 1 (Th1) immune response. Interleukin 10, a potent antagonist of IL-12, is a cytokine which possesses immunosuppressive activity mainly produced via T-helper type 2 (Th2) cells. Studies of other types of cancer have shown that the level of IL-12 in serum or tissues is suppressed and/or the IL-10 level is increased, suggesting that there is an impaired cell-mediated anti-tumour response.
The aim of this study was to measure pre-operative serum cytokine concentrations in HNSCC patients in order to detect any changes in IL-10, IL-12 and IL-18, compared with non-tumour controls. The relationship between cytokine levels and standard clinicopathological features, including tumour site, tumour stage and presence of nodal metastasis, was also examined.
Fifty-seven patients with primary HNSCC were prospectively recruited, together with 40 non-tumour control patients with a similar age and sex distribution. Serum cytokine levels were measured using commercial quantitative enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay.
The HNSCC patients had significantly lower IL-12 levels (median; interquartile range) than controls (42.8 pg/ml, 26.2–61.6 vs 52.3 pg/ml, 37.5–113.7; p=0.018). Also, patients were more likely to have detectable IL-10 levels than were controls, as IL-10 was positive in 27/55 patients but in only 9/39 controls (p=0.011). Furthermore, IL-10 detectability varied according to primary site, being more commonly observed in hypopharyngeal and laryngeal tumours, and IL-10 was more likely to be detected with advanced tumour stage (T3 and T4). No differences in IL-18 levels were observed between patients and controls (p=0.169).
These results suggest (in agreement with studies on other solid malignancies) that HNSCC causes a significant change in the serum levels of specific Th1 and Th2 cytokines, producing an in vivo environment that is unlikely to promote an effective cell-mediated anti-tumour response.