PURPOSE - The combination of systemic multiagent chemotherapy (5-fluorouracil + cisplatin) and tumor irradiation is standard of care for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Furthermore, it has been shown that sublethal doses of radiation or chemotherapeutic drugs in diverse cancer types may alter the phenotype or biology of neoplastic cells, making them more susceptible to CTL-mediated cytotoxicity. However, little is known about the potential synergistic effect of drug plus radiation on CTL killing. Here, we examined whether the combination of two chemotherapeutics and ionizing radiation enhanced CTL-mediated destruction of HNSCC more so than either modality separately, as well as the basis for the enhanced tumor cell lysis.
EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN - Several HNSCC cell lines with distinct biological features were treated with sublethal doses of cisplatin and 5-fluorouracil for 24 hours and with 10-Gy irradiation. Seventy-two hours postirradiation, tumor cells were exposed to an antigen-specific CD8+ CTL directed against carcinoembryonic antigen or MUC-1.
RESULTS - In three of three tumor cell lines tested, enhanced CTL activity was observed when the two modalities (chemotherapy and radiation) were combined as compared with target cells exposed to either modality separately. CTL-mediated lysis was MHC restricted and antigen specific and occurred almost entirely via the perforin pathway. Moreover, the combination treatment regimen led to a 50% reduction in Bcl-2 expression whereas single modality treatment had little bearing on the expression of this antiapoptotic gene.
CONCLUSIONS - Overall, these results reveal that (a) CTL killing can be enhanced by combining multiagent chemotherapy and radiation and (b) combination treatment enhanced or sensitized HNSCC to the perforin pathway, perhaps by down-regulating Bcl-2 expression. These studies thus form the rational basis for clinical trials of immunotherapy concomitant with the current standard of care of HNSCC.