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PURPOSE: Randomized controlled trials have generally shown a benefit from accelerated radiotherapy in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). However, the large randomized United Kingdom trial CHART (Continuous Hyperfractionated Accelerated Radiotherapy) failed to show a benefit of strongly accelerated over standard radiotherapy (RT) in 918 patients with HNSCC. In this study, we investigated the impact of tumor hypoxia on the outcome of HNSCC patients in the CHART trial. There are two distinct hypoxia inducible factors (HIFs) that control different gene response pathways and we assessed them both with endogenous markers of hypoxia, hypoxia inducible factor HIF-2 alpha (HIF-2) and carbonic anhydrase CA9, an indicator of HIF-1 alpha (HIF-1) function. METHODS: Tissue from pre-RT biopsies performed in 198 of 918 patients recruited was analyzed for the immunohistochemical expression of HIF-2 and CA9. RESULTS: A significant association of high HIF2 and of high CA9 reactivity with poor locoregional control (P < .0001 and P = .0002, respectively) and poor survival (P = .0004 and 0.002, respectively) was noted. In multivariate analysis, HIF-2 and CA9 maintained their independent prognostic significance. Coexpression of both pathways had an additive effect, supporting their independent role. The uni-directional hypothesis, that a benefit from randomization to CHART should be seen in the nonhypoxic tumors, was supported by the data (one-tailed P = .04). CONCLUSION: Expression of endogenous markers of hypoxia for the HIF-1 and HIF-2 pathway is strongly associated with radiotherapy failure. Using immunohistochemical methods it is possible to identify subgroups of HNSCC patients who are highly curable with radiotherapy, or who are excellent candidates for clinical trials on hypoxia-targeting drugs in two distinct pathways.

Original publication




Journal article


J Clin Oncol

Publication Date





727 - 735


Antigens, Neoplasm, Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors, Biomarkers, Tumor, Biopsy, Carbonic Anhydrase IX, Carbonic Anhydrases, Cell Hypoxia, Dose Fractionation, Radiation, Gene Expression Profiling, Head and Neck Neoplasms, Humans, Immunohistochemistry, Retrospective Studies, Treatment Outcome