Background: While lymph node metastasis is among the strongest predictors of disease-free and overall survival for patients with breast cancer, the immunological nature of tumor-draining lymph nodes is often ignored, and may provide additional prognostic information on clinical outcome.
Methods and findings: We performed immunohistochemical analysis of 47 sentinel and 104 axillary (nonsentinel) nodes from 77 breast cancer patients with 5 y of follow-up to determine if alterations in CD4, CD8, and CD1a cell populations predict nodal metastasis or disease-free survival. Sentinel and axillary node CD4 and CD8 T cells were decreased in breast cancer patients compared to control nodes. CD1a dendritic cells were also diminished in sentinel and tumor-involved axillary nodes, but increased in tumor-free axillary nodes. Axillary node, but not sentinel node, CD4 T cell and dendritic cell populations were highly correlated with disease-free survival, independent of axillary metastasis. Immune profiling of ALN from a test set of 48 patients, applying CD4 T cell and CD1a dendritic cell population thresholds of CD4 > or = 7.0% and CD1a > or = 0.6%, determined from analysis of a learning set of 29 patients, provided significant risk stratification into favorable and unfavorable prognostic groups superior to clinicopathologic characteristics including tumor size, extent or size of nodal metastasis (CD4, p < 0.001 and CD1a, p < 0.001). Moreover, axillary node CD4 T cell and CD1a dendritic cell populations allowed more significant stratification of disease-free survival of patients with T1 (primary tumor size 2 cm or less) and T2 (5 cm or larger) tumors than all other patient characteristics. Finally, sentinel node immune profiles correlated primarily with the presence of infiltrating tumor cells, while axillary node immune profiles appeared largely independent of nodal metastases, raising the possibility that, within axillary lymph nodes, immune profile changes and nodal metastases represent independent processes.
Conclusion: These findings demonstrate that the immune profile of tumor-draining lymph nodes is of novel biologic and clinical importance for patients with early stage breast cancer.