Squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck (SCCHN) often contain a large mononuclear cell infiltrate, composed mainly of T-lymphocytes which could reflect an in situ immune reaction against the malignant SCCHN cells. We analyzed the molecular structure of the T-cell receptor (TCR) α and β chains expressed by lymphocytes in the tumor, peripheral blood (PBMC), and in the peritumoral tissue in six cases of localized SCCHN. We first determined Vα and Vβ gene segment subfamily usage by polymerase chain reaction using a panel of V subfamily-specific oligonucleotide primers (Vα1-w29 and Vβ1-w24). An apparently unrestricted usage of Vα or Vβ gene segment subfamilies was observed for all three samples from the six cases examined. No major difference was observed in T-cell receptor repertoire expression of PBMC between SCCHN and healthy donors, making unlikely the expression of putative tumor-related superantigen(s) in these patients. Intersample comparisons for a given Vα or Vβ T-cell receptor specificity revealed some differences in V gene segment usage in tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes versus PBMC. A detailed analysis of these V segment subfamily specificities (cloning followed by sequencing and CDR3 size distribution analysis) in one patient revealed the presence of recurrent T-cell receptor transcripts (i.e., identical V-N-J sequences) in the tumor (e.g., 40%) and in PBMC (e.g., 75%). These results show that unique T-cell subpopulations are clonally amplified in SCCHN patients, possibly as a consequence of antigen-driven selection.

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