BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE: Hypoxia negatively affects treatment outcome in both Human papillomavirus (HPV)-positive and -negative head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC). Despite HPV-positive patients having a relatively good prognosis, hypoxic HPV-positive tumours are associated with poor treatment outcome, and do not respond to hypoxia modification. Earlier, we showed that hypoxia induces the pro-survival AKT pathway. In this study, we aim to investigate whether AKT inhibition affects the response to radiotherapy under hypoxia, and determine whether this is a viable treatment strategy for HNSCC patients with hypoxic HPV-positive tumours. MATERIALS AND METHODS: Nine HPV-negative and 4 HPV-positive HNSCC cell lines were characterized. AKT activation was assessed by western blot. Survival in response to hypoxic incubation, AKT inhibition and/or irradiation was assessed using CCK8 assays and colony forming assays. RESULTS: AKT was activated under hypoxia in both HPV-negative and -positive cell lines, which could be abrogated by the AKT inhibitor MK2206. HPV-positive cell lines were highly sensitive to MK2206 at normoxia. In all HNSCC cell lines, AKT inhibition was significantly more effective in inhibiting cell growth during hypoxic conditions than under normoxia. Hypoxia significantly reduced radiosensitivity irrespective of HPV-status, yet specifically in HPV-positive cells this could be efficiently reversed by AKT inhibition. CONCLUSIONS: These data suggest that HNSCC tumours are dependent on AKT to survive hypoxia, and that AKT inhibition is specifically effective in radioresistant hypoxic HPV-positive cells. Targeting AKT may thus be a potential way to overcome hypoxia induced radioresistance, particularly in HPV-positive HNSCC tumours.
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Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, Human papillomavirus, Hypoxia, Radiotherapy