The NFE2L2 (NRF2) oncogene and transcription factor drives a gene expression program that promotes cancer progression, metabolic reprogramming, immune evasion, and chemoradiation resistance. Patient stratification by NRF2 activity may guide treatment decisions to improve outcome. Here, we developed a mass spectrometry–based targeted proteomics assay based on internal standard–triggered parallel reaction monitoring to quantify 69 NRF2 pathway components and targets, as well as 21 proteins of broad clinical significance in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). We improved an existing internal standard–triggered parallel reaction monitoring acquisition algorithm, called SureQuant, to increase throughput, sensitivity, and precision. Testing the optimized platform on 27 lung and upper aerodigestive cancer cell models revealed 35 NRF2 responsive proteins. In formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded HNSCCs, NRF2 signaling intensity positively correlated with NRF2-activating mutations and with SOX2 protein expression. Protein markers of T-cell infiltration correlated positively with one another and with human papilloma virus infection status. CDKN2A (p16) protein expression positively correlated with the human papilloma virus oncogenic E7 protein and confirmed the presence of translationally active virus. This work establishes a clinically actionable HNSCC protein biomarker assay capable of quantifying over 600 peptides from frozen or formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded archived tissues in under 90 min.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100647
JournalMolecular and Cellular Proteomics
Issue number11
StatePublished - 2023


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