Combining targeted therapy and immunotherapy to improve survival and quality of life of head and neck cancer patients. 01/03/2021 - 28/02/2025


Both targeted and immunotherapies are the key to precision medicine for the treatment of cancer patients. Deregulated signalling of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) plays an integral role in the tumourigenesis of multiple cancer types. Furthermore, it is well established that immune checkpoints are crucial for the tumour cell's escape from the immune system. The presence of drug resistance and/or immune evasion is a major obstacle to progress in the field. In our project, we will concentrate specifically on head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), a highly relevant tumour type with poor prognosis that is intensively studied at the Centre for Oncological Research (CORE) Antwerp. To date, there is still an urgent need to enhance the response to cetuximab treatment in recurrent/metastatic (R/M) HNSCC. Over the last years, cetuximab-related resistance mechanisms have been extensively studied at CORE. Based on our results and reports in literature, we hypothesize that inhibiting oncogenic bypass pathways responsible for cetuximab resistance, by a novel treatment strategy can lead to elimination of HNSCC cells that are resistant to treatment with cetuximab alone. In the proposed project, we will investigate the potency of a novel triple combination strategy in order to enhance the response to cetuximab therapy in HNSCC patients. To achieve this, cetuximab will be combined with buparlisib, a selective PI3K inhibitor, and an immune checkpoint inhibitor. Importantly, we will investigate the role of human papilloma virus (HPV) in this response, as HPV positive HNSCC patients represent a biologically distinct group. Furthermore, the nature of our project is translational, as from the beginning, we will use patient-derived HNSCC tumour organoids to validate our results from cell line experiments. These patient-derived tumour organoids are a very innovative and reliable model to identify effective treatment strategies and can actually be considered as a 'patient in the lab'. We are convinced that precision medicine using combinations of targeted therapies with immunotherapy may achieve the much-needed progress in HNSCC treatment. As reported in literature, both cetuximab and buparlisib treatment are able to promote anti-tumour immune response. Therefore, in the first work package, we will characterize the anti-tumour activity and immunomodulating effects of cetuximab in combination with buparlisib in HNSCC cell lines and patient-derived HNSCC organoids. Secondly, we will investigate the immunomodulating effects of cetuximab in combination with buparlisib on immune cells. In parallel, the effect of this combination treatment on the immune checkpoint profile will be assessed. Finally, the novel triple combination therapy consisting of cetuximab, buparlisib and an immune checkpoint inhibitor will be investigated in a humanized, PBMC engrafted HNSCC mouse model. This preclinical work will ultimately guide the start-up of a clinical trial to demonstrate feasibility of the novel triple combination therapy to treat HNSCC patients. Given the extensive preclinical (both in vitro and in vivo) and translational work packages to optimise the novel triple combination strategy, we are confident that the data generated in this project will provide insight into how therapeutic response to cetuximab treatment can be optimized, thus favouring the setup of a successful clinical trial with the newly identified triple combination therapy.


Research team(s)