Abnormal T regulatory cells (Tregs: FOXP3+, CTLA-4+), myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs: monocytic, granulocytic) and polarised T helper cell profiles (Th1, Th2, Th17) in women with large and locally advanced breast cancers undergoing neoadjuvant chemotherapy (NAC) and surgery: failure of abolition of abnormal treg profile with treatment and correlation of treg levels with pathological response to NAC

J Transl Med. 2013 Jan 15;11:16. doi: 10.1186/1479-5876-11-16.


Background: Host defences play a key role in tumour growth. Some of the benefits of chemotherapy may occur through modulation of these defences. The aim of this study was to define the status of regulatory cells in women with large and locally advanced breast cancers (LLABCs) undergoing neoadjuvant chemotherapy (NAC) and surgery.

Methods: Bloods were collected from patients (n=56) before, during and following NAC, and surgery. Controls (n=10) were healthy, age-matched females donors (HFDs). Blood mononuclear cells (BMCs) were isolated and T regulatory cells (Tregs) (n=31) determined. Absolute numbers (AbNs) of Tregs and myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs) were ascertained from whole blood (n=25). Reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction analysis determined Treg mRNA (n=16). In vitro production of Th1, Th2 and Th17 cytokines (n=30), was documented. Patients were classified as clinical responders by magnetic resonance mammography after two cycles of NAC and as pathological responders using established criteria, following surgery.

Results: Patients with LLABCs had significantly increased circulating Tregs (≥ 6 fold AbN and percentage (%)) and MDSCs (≥ 1.5 fold AbN (p=0.025)). Percentage of FOXP3+ Tregs in blood predicted the response of the LLABCs to subsequent NAC (p=0.04). Post NAC blood Tregs (%) were significantly reduced in patients where tumours showed a good pathological response to NAC (p=0.05). Blood MDSCs (granulocytic, monocytic) were significantly reduced in all patients, irrespective of the pathological tumour response to chemotherapy. NAC followed by surgery failed to restore blood Tregs to normal levels. MDSCs, however, were reduced to or below normal levels by NAC alone. Invitro Th1 profile (IL-1β, IL-2, INF-γ, TNF-α) was significantly reduced (p ≤ 0.009), whilst Th2 (IL-4, IL-5) was significantly enhanced (P ≤ 0.004). Th1 and Th2 (IL-5) were unaffected by NAC and surgery. IL-17A was significantly increased (p ≤ 0.023) but unaffected by chemotherapy and surgery.

Conclusion: Women with LLABCs have abnormal blood regulatory cell levels (Tregs and MDSCs) and cytokine profiles (Th1, Th2, Th17). NAC followed by surgery failed to abolish the abnormal Treg and Th profiles. There was a significant correlation between the circulatory levels of Tregs and the pathological response of the breast cancers to NAC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / surgery
  • CTLA-4 Antigen / metabolism*
  • Chemotherapy, Adjuvant / methods*
  • Combined Modality Therapy / methods
  • Female
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors / metabolism*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Mammography
  • Neoadjuvant Therapy / methods*
  • Phenotype
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / cytology*
  • Th1 Cells / cytology
  • Th17 Cells / cytology
  • Th2 Cells / cytology


  • CTLA-4 Antigen
  • FOXP3 protein, human
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors
  • RNA, Messenger