Clinical Cancer Research
Purpose: Human papilloma virus (HPV) related head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is associated with daily marijuana use and is also increasing in parallel with increased marijuana use in the United States. Our study is designed to define the interaction between cannabinoids and HPV positive HNSCC. Experimental Design: The expression of cannabinoid receptors CNR1 and CNR2 was analyzed using The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) HNSCC data. We used agonists, antagonists, siRNAs or shRNA based models to explore the roles of CNR1 and CNR2 in HPV positive HNSCC cell lines and animal models. Cannabinoid downstream pathways involved were determined by Western blotting and analyzed in a primary HPV HNSCC cohort with single sample gene set enrichment analysis (ssGSEA) and the OncoGenome Positioning System (Onco-GPS). Results: In TCGA cohort, the expression of CNR1 and CNR2 was elevated in HPV positive HNSCC compared with HPV negative HNSCC, and knockdown of CNR1/CNR2 expression inhibited proliferation in HPV positive HNSCC cell lines. Specific CNR1 and CNR2 activation as well as non-selective cannabinoid receptor activation in cell lines and animal models promoted cell growth, migration, and inhibited apoptosis through p38 MAPK pathway activation. CNR1/CNR2 antagonists suppressed cell proliferation and migration, and induced apoptosis. Using whole genome expression analysis in a primary HPV HNSCC cohort, we identified specific p38 MAPK pathway activation signature in tumors from HPV HNSCC patients with objective measurement of concurrent cannabinoid exposure. Conclusion: Cannabinoids can promote progression of HPV positive HNSCC through p38 MAPK pathway activation.