Relevance of Tumor-Infiltrating Immune Cell Composition and Functionality for Disease Outcome in Breast Cancer

Rico D. Bense, Christos Sotiriou, Martine J. Piccart-Gebhart, John B. A. G. Haanen, Marcel A. T. M. van Vugt, Elisabeth G. E. de Vries, Carolien P. Schröder, Rudolf S. N. Fehrmann*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

257 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Not all breast cancer patients benefit from neoadjuvant or adjuvant therapy, resulting in considerable undertreatment or overtreatment. New insights into the role of tumor-infiltrating immune cells suggest that their composition, as well as their functionality, might serve as a biomarker to enable optimal patient selection for current systemic therapies and upcoming treatment options such as immunotherapy.

Methods: We performed several complementary unbiased in silico analyses on gene expression profiles of 7270 unrelated tumor samples of nonmetastatic breast cancer patients with known clinical follow-up. CIBERSORT was used to estimate the fraction of 22 immune cell types to study their relations with pathological complete response (pCR), disease-free survival (DFS), and overall survival (OS). In addition, we used four previously reported immune gene signatures and a CD8+ T-cell exhaustion signature to assess their relationships with breast cancer outcome. Multivariable binary logistic regression and multivariable Cox regression were used to assess the association of immune cell-type fractions and immune signatures with pCR and DFS/OS, respectively.

Results: Increased fraction of regulatory T-cells in human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)-positive tumors was associated with a lower pCR rate (odds ratio [OR] = 0.15, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.03 to 0.69), as well as shorter DFS (hazard ratio [HR] = 3.13, 95% CI = 1.23 to 7.98) and OS (HR = 7.69, 95% CI = 3.43 to 17.23). A higher fraction of M0 macrophages in estrogen receptor (ER)-positive tumors was associated with worse DFS (HR = 1.66, 95% CI = 1.18 to 2.33) and, in ER-positive/HER2-negative tumors, with worse OS (HR = 1.71, 95% CI = 1.12 to 2.61). Increased fractions of gamma delta T-cells in all breast cancer patients related to a higher pCR rate (OR = 1.55, 95% CI = 1.01 to 2.38), prolonged DFS (HR = 0.68, 95% CI = 0.48 to 0.98), and, in HER2-positive tumors, with prolonged OS (HR = 0.27, 95% CI = 0.10 to 0.73). A higher fraction of activated mast cells was associated with worse DFS (HR = 5.85, 95% CI = 2.20 to 15.54) and OS (HR = 5.33, 95% CI = 2.04 to 13.91) in HER2-positive tumors. The composition of relevant immune cell types frequently differed per breast cancer subtype. Furthermore, a high CD8+ T-cell exhaustion signature score was associated with shortened DFS in patients with ER-positive tumors regardless of HER2 status (HR = 1.80, 95% CI = 1.07 to 3.04).

Conclusions: The main hypothesis generated in our unbiased in silico approach is that a multitude of immune cells are related to treatment response and outcome in breast cancer.

Original languageEnglish
Article number192
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of the National Cancer Institute
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan-2017



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