Introduction: Sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy allows identification of the first lymph node into which a primary tumor drains. In breast cancer, identification of tumor cells in the SLNs is a predictor of the tumor's metastatic potential. In the present article, we tested the hypotheses that a positive immune response can occur in tumor-free SLNs and that the activation state of dendritic cells (DCs), the major antigen presenting cells within SLNs, predicts the immune status and metastatic potential of the tumor.
Methods: Fifty paraffin-embedded SLN sections, 25 tumor-free and 25 tumor-containing, from patients with breast cancer were analyzed by immunohistochemistry to determine the immune maturation state of their DCs. In addition, 12 lymph nodes from noncancer-containing breasts were analyzed. Tissues were stained with antibodies against CD3, MHC class II, CD1a, CD83, IL-10, and IL-12. Mature DCs were defined by CD83 expression and immature DCs by CD1a expression.
Results: We found a trend toward higher numbers of mature CD83-positive DCs in tumor-free SLNs than in tumor-containing SLNs (P = 0.07). In addition, tumor-free SLNs were more likely to contain cells expressing IL-10 (P = 0.02) and, to a lesser extent, IL-12 (P = 0.12). In contrast, when all SLNs, both tumor-free and tumor-containing, were compared with uninvolved lymph nodes, the numbers of mature and immature DCs were similar.
Conclusions: Our results suggest tumor-free SLNs are immunologically competent and potentially a site of tumor-specific T-cell activation, as evidenced by the presence of greater numbers of mature DCs and cytokine-producing cells in tumor-free SLNs.