Prognostic and predictive biomarkers in head and neck cancer: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a sixpence in your shoe

Balgobind S, Cheung VKY, Luk P, Low TH, Wykes J, Wu R, Lee J, Ch’ng S, Palme CE, Clark JR, Gupta R. Pathology, 56, no. 2: 170-85, doi:10.1016/j.pathol.2023.11.005.


A biomarker is a measurable indicator of biological or pathological processes or the response to an exposure or intervention and is used to guide management decisions. In head and neck pathology, biomarkers are assessed by histological criteria and immunohistochemical and molecular studies. Surgical resection remains the mainstay of management of many head and neck malignancies. Adjuvant radiotherapy and/or systemic therapy may be administered depending on the presence of adverse prognostic factors identified on histopathological or immunohistochemical examination. In this review, we outline the clinically relevant prognostic and predictive factors in head and neck malignancies including conventionally recognised factors such as tumour size, depth of invasion, lymphovascular and perineural invasion and margin status as well as novel evolving factors such as recurrent genetic rearrangements and assessment of immune checkpoints. Practical issues are discussed to assist with recognising and reporting of these factors. A summary of useful tools such as structured pathology report formats is also included to assist with comprehensive reporting of all clinically relevant parameters, minimise risk and improve workflow efficiencies.