BACKGROUND: Several parameters of the tumor microenvironment, such as hypoxia, inflammation and angiogenesis, play a critical role in tumor aggressiveness and treatment response. A major question remains if these markers can be used to stratify patients to certain treatment protocols. The purpose of this study was to investigate the inter-relationship and the prognostic significance of several biological and clinicopathological parameters in patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) treated by radiotherapy +/- chemotherapy. METHODS: We used two subgroups of a retrospective series for which CT-determined tumoral perfusion correlated with local control. In the first subgroup (n = 67), immunohistochemistry for carbonic anhydrase IX (CA IX) and glucose transporter-1 (GLUT-1) was performed on the pretreatment tumor biopsy. In the second subgroup (n = 34), enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was used to determine pretreatment levels of the cytokines vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) in serum. Correlation was investigated between tumoral perfusion and each of these biological markers, as well as between the markers mutually. The prognostic value of these microenvironmental parameters was also evaluated. RESULTS: For CA IX and GLUT-1, the combined assessment of patients with both markers expressed above the median showed an independent correlation with local control (p = 0.02) and disease-free survival (p = 0.04) with a trend for regional control (p = 0.06). In the second subgroup, IL-6 pretreatment serum level above the median was the only independent predictor of local control (p = 0.009), disease-free survival (p = 0.02) and overall survival (p = 0.005). CONCLUSION: To our knowledge, we are the first to report a link in HNSCC between IL-6 pretreatment serum levels and radioresistance in vivo. This link is supported by the strong prognostic association of pretreatment IL-6 with local control, known to be the most important parameter to judge radiotherapy responses. Furthermore, the combined assessment of CA IX and GLUT-1 correlated independently with prognosis. This is a valuable indication that a combined approach is important in the investigation of prognostic markers.