In our previous study, serine protease inhibitor Kazal-type 5 (SPINK5), which encodes the product of serine protease inhibitor lymphoepithelial Kazal-type-related inhibitor (LEKTI) was found to be down-regulated in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) using oligonucleotide microarrays. However, the function and clinical implications of SPINK5/LEKTI remain obscure in HNSCC. The endogenous expression level of SPINK5/LEKTI was further verified in 9 HNSCC cell lines and HNSCCs by means of reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction, real-time PCR, Western blotting and immunohistochemistry. The biological function of SPINK5/LEKTI was investigated in vitro and in vivo experiments. Kaplan-Meier survival analysis and Cox proportional hazards regression model were used to determine the correlation between SPINK5/LEKTI expression and clinical outcome. Down-regulation expression of SPINK5/LEKTI was found in six out of nine HNSCC cell lines and in 85.7% HNSCC specimens (P<0.0001). Upon silencing of SPINK5/LEKTI, the cell proliferation, plate colony formation and cell invasion of WU-HN6 cells were significantly increased, while exogenous overexpression of SPINK5/LEKTI, the proliferation, plate colony and invasion of WU-HN13 and HN30 cells were remarkably inhibited with the arrest of G1 cell cycle (P=0.0001, P=0.003, respectively). HNSCC patients with lower LEKTI levels had significantly inferior overall survival compared to those patients with higher LEKTI (P=0.0017) by Kaplan-Meier survival analysis. Univariate and multivariate Cox proportional hazards regression model analysis revealed that LEKTI expression was an independent prognostic predictor for HNSCC patients (HR=0.114, 95% CI:0.044-0.292, P<0.001). Our results demonstrate that SPINK5/LEKTI might be a tumor suppressor in HNSCCs and serve as an independent prognostic predictor for HNSCC patients. © 2020 Lv et al.