Purpose: To determine the clinical impact of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class I expression in irradiated and non-irradiated rectal carcinomas.
Experimental design: Tumor samples in tissue micro array format were collected from 1,135 patients. HLA class I expression was assessed after immunohistochemical staining with two antibodies (HCA2 and HC10).
Results: Tumors were split into two groups: (1) tumors with >50% of tumor cells expressing HLA class I (high) and (2) tumors with < or =50% of tumor cells expressing HLA class I (low). No difference in distribution or prognosis of HLA class I expression was found between irradiated and non-irradiated patients. Patients with low expression of HLA class I (15% of all patients) showed an independent significantly worse prognosis with regard to overall survival and disease-free survival. HLA class I expression had no effect on cancer-specific survival or recurrence-free survival.
Conclusions: Down-regulation of HLA class I in rectal cancer is associated with poor prognosis. In contrast to our results, previous reports on HLA class I expression in colorectal cancer described a large population of patients with HLA class I negative tumors, having a good prognosis. This difference might be explained by the fact that a large proportion of HLA negative colon tumors are microsatellite instable (MSI). MSI tumors are associated with a better prognosis than microsatellite stable (MSS). As rectal tumors are mainly MSS, our results suggest that it is both, oncogenic pathway and HLA class I expression, that dictates patient's prognosis in colorectal cancer. Therefore, to prevent confounding in future prognostic analysis on the impact of HLA expression in colorectal tumors, separate analysis of MSI and MSS tumors should be performed.