The past several years have seen some exciting results for cancer immunotherapy. However, there remains a fundamental lack of understanding of immune system recognition in various cancers. Many large-scale sequencing efforts have added to our collective knowledge base, but too many of these studies have been deficient in comprehensive epidemiological and demographic information.
Now, researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard report on their findings from a new study, which found that colorectal cancers festooned with tumor-related proteins called neoantigens were likely to be saturated with disease-fighting white blood cells, mainly lymphocytes.
Using several data sets from patients in two large health-tracking studies, the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, investigators performed whole-exome sequencing on colorectal tumor samples from 619 patients—itemizing each DNA base that specifies how cell proteins are to be constructed. This information was merged with data from tests of the immune system's response to the tumors and with patient clinical data, including length of survival.
"We were looking for genetic features that predict how extensively a tumor is infiltrated by lymphocytes and which types of lymphocytes are present," explained co-lead study author, Marios Giannakis, M.D., Ph.D., medical oncologist and clinical investigator at the Dana-Farber Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center, and researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. "We found that tumors with a high 'neoantigen load'—which carry large quantities of neoantigens—tended to be infiltrated by a large number of lymphocytes, including memory T cells, which provide protection against previously encountered infections and diseases. Patients whose tumors had high numbers of neoantigens also survived longer than those with lower neoantigen loads."
The findings from this study were published recently in Cell Reports in an article entitled “Genomic Correlates of Immune-Cell Infiltrates in Colorectal Carcinoma.”
Neoantigens are mutated forms of protein antigens, which are found on normal cells. Genetic mutations often cause cancer cells to produce abnormal proteins, some of which get trafficked to the cell surface, where they serve as a red flag to the immune system that something has gone awry with the cell.
"There can be hundreds or thousands of neoantigens on tumor cells," noted Dr. Giannakis explained. "Only a few of these may actually provoke T cells to infiltrate a tumor. However, the more neoantigens on display, the greater the chance that some of them will spark an immune system response."
Physicians often take advantage of therapies known as immune checkpoint inhibitors, which work by removing some of the barriers to an immune system attack on cancer. Although these agents have produced astonishing results in some cases, they're effective only in patients whose immune system has already launched an immune response to cancer. This new study may help investigators identify which patients are most likely to benefit in new clinical trials of immune checkpoint inhibitors by showing that tumors with high antigen loads are apt to be laced with T cells—and therefore able to provoke an immune response.
Interestingly, this new analysis found several often-mutated genes that had not previously been strongly associated with the disease, including BCL9L, RBM10, CTCF, and KLF5, suggesting that they may be valuable targets for new therapies.
"Our study helps shed light on the overall development of colorectal cancer," Dr. Giannakis remarked. "It also shows the insights that can be gained by integrating molecular research with findings from other areas such as epidemiology and immunology."