Background: Besides being a preferential site of early metastasis, the sentinel lymph node (SLN) is also a privileged site of T-cell priming, and may thus be an appropriate target for investigating cell types involved in antitumor immune reactions.
Methods: In this retrospective study we determined the prevalence of OX40+ activated T lymphocytes, FOXP3+ (forkhead box P3) regulatory T cells, DC-LAMP+ (dendritic cell-lysosomal associated membrane protein) mature dendritic cells (DCs) and CD123+ plasmacytoid DCs by immunohistochemistry in 100 SLNs from 60 melanoma patients. Density values of each cell type in SLNs were compared to those in non-sentinel nodes obtained from block dissections (n = 37), and analyzed with regard to associations with clinicopathological parameters and disease outcome.
Results: Sentinel nodes showed elevated amount of all cell types studied in comparison to non-sentinel nodes. Metastatic SLNs had higher density of OX40+ lymphocytes compared to tumor-negative nodes, while no significant difference was observed in the case of the other cell types studied. In patients with positive sentinel node status, high amount of FOXP3+ cells in SLNs was associated with shorter progression-free (P = 0.0011) and overall survival (P = 0.0014), while no significant correlation was found in the case of sentinel-negative patients. The density of OX40+, CD123+ or DC-LAMP+ cells did not show significant association with the outcome of the disease.
Conclusions: Taken together, our results are compatible with the hypothesis of functional competence of sentinel lymph nodes based on the prevalence of the studied immune cells. The density of FOXP3+ lymphocytes showed association with progression and survival in patients with positive SLN status, while the other immune markers studied did not prove of prognostic importance. These results, together with our previous findings on the prognostic value of activated T cells and mature DCs infiltrating primary melanomas, suggest that immune activation-associated markers in the primary tumor may have a higher impact than those in SLNs on the prognosis of the patients. On the other hand, FOXP3+ cell density in SLNs, but not in the primary tumor, was found predictive of disease outcome in melanoma patients.