Background: Microsatellite instability (MSI) accounts for 15% of all colorectal tumours. Several specific clinicopathologicals (e.g., preference for the proximal colon over the distal colon, improved prognosis and altered response to chemotherapeutics) are described for this subset of tumours. This study aimed to analyse morphological, inflammatory and angiogenic features of MSI vs microsatellite stable (MSS) tumours.
Methods: Twenty-seven MSS and 29 MSI, TNM stage matched, colorectal tumours were selected from the archive of the Department of Pathology, UZ Leuven. Morphology was analysed on haematoxylin-eosin sections. Immunohistochemistry for CD3, CD4, CD8, CD20 and CD68 was used to map tumour infiltration in both a digital and traditional microscope-based manner for all distinct morphological components of the tumour. CD31 immunostains were performed to assess angiogenesis.
Results: Morphological tumour heterogeneity was a marked feature of MSI tumours, occurring in 53% of the cases as compared with 11% of the MSS tumours (P<0.001). Digital immune quantification showed an increased number of tumour-infiltrating cytotoxic T-lymphocytes (CD8+) in MSI compared with MSS tumours for both the tumour (P=0.02) and peritumoural area (P=0.03). Traditional microscope-based quantification confirmed these results (P<0.001 for both) and, in addition, revealed large numbers of CD68+ macrophages in the peritumoural area of MSI cancers (P=0.001). Moreover, traditional microscope-based analysis was able to distinguish between lymphocytes directly infiltrating the tumoural glands (intra-epithelial) and those infiltrating only the neoplastic stroma around the glands (intratumoural). Quantification showed high numbers of intra-epithelial CD3+, CD4+, CD8+, CD20+ and CD68+ cells in MSI compared with MSS cancers (P<0.001, P=0.01, P<0.001, P<0.001 and P=0.006, respectively). Higher microvessel density (MVD) was observed in MSI tumours compared with their MSS counterpart.
Conclusions: Mixed morphology, reflecting tumour heterogeneity, is an important feature of MSI tumours and may have both diagnostic and therapeutic impact. The inflammatory reaction also presented with significant differences in MSI vs MSS colorectal tumours. MSI cancers showed mainly infiltration by cytotoxic T-cells in both the tumour and the close border around the tumour, as well as increased intra-epithelial infiltration in contrast to MSS tumours. The type of immune cell and the compartment it resides in (intratumoural or intra-epithelial) depend both on MSI status and morphology. Finally, MSI tumours showed a higher angiogenic capacity represented by an increased MVD, hinting for possible therapeutic consequences.