Increased Fas ligand expression by T cells and tumour cells in the progression of actinic keratosis to squamous cell carcinoma

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In the counterattack model of tumorigenesis, it has been proposed that tumours develop resistance to attack from Fas ligand (FasL)-expressing cytotoxic T cells by downregulating Fas (immune escape), while at the same time upregulating FasL expression to induce apoptosis in Fas-expressing T cells (counterattack).


The aim of this study was to examine Fas and FasL expression on tumour cells and infiltrating T cells during the progression of actinic keratoses (AK), the benign precursor lesion, to squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

Patients and methods

Samples of AK (n = 20) and SCC (n = 20) were collected from immunocompetent patients attending dermatology clinics. Double-label immunohistochemistry was performed on frozen sections using mouse monoclonal antibodies to Fas or FasL, simultaneously with a rabbit polyclonal antibody to either CD3 or cytokeratin, markers of T cells and keratinocytes, respectively. Cell densities and the optical density of tumour Fas expression were measured using image analysis.


FasL-expressing T cells were observed in nine of 19 SCCs, compared with three of 20 AKs (P < 0·05). FasL-expressing tumour cells were found in nine of 18 SCCs, compared with only one of 20 AK specimens (P < 0·005). There was no difference in the number of Fas-expressing T cells infiltrating AK and SCC. Fas expression by keratinocytes, measured by optical density, was lower in SCC (range 0·1–40, median 17) compared with AK (range 4–62, median 25) (P < 0·05).


These results suggest that the greater numbers of FasL-expressing T cells infiltrating into SCC compared with AK are targeting Fas-expressing tumour cells. As AK cells progress to SCC, they subvert this T-cell-mediated killing of tumour cells by downregulating their Fas expression (immune escape). Furthermore, tumour cells upregulate their expression of FasL, possibly as a counterattack measure to induce apoptosis in the increased number of tumour-infiltrating T cells. Thus changes in Fas/FasL-mediated interactions between T cells and tumour cells occur during the progression of AK into SCC.

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