Background: Immunotherapy can become a crucial therapeutic option to improve prognosis for lung cancer patients. First clinical trials with therapies targeting the programmed cell death receptor PD-1 and its ligand PD-L1 have shown promising results in several solid tumors. However, in lung cancer the diagnostic, prognostic and predictive value of these immunologic factors remains unclear.
Method: The impact of both factors was evaluated in a study collective of 321 clinically well-annotated patients with non-small lung cancer (NSCLC) using immunohistochemistry.
Results: PD-1 expression by tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) was found in 22%, whereas tumor cell associated PD-L1 expression was observed in 24% of the NSCLC tumors. In Fisher's exact test a positive correlation was found for PD-L1 and Bcl-xl protein expression (p = 0.013). Interestingly, PD-L1 expression on tumor cells was associated with improved overall survival in pulmonary squamous cell carcinomas (SCC, p = 0.042, log rank test), with adjuvant therapy (p = 0.017), with increased tumor size (pT2-4, p = 0.039) and with positive lymph node status (pN1-3, p = 0.010). These observations were confirmed by multivariate cox regression models.
Conclusion: One major finding of our study is the identification of a prognostic implication of PD-L1 in subsets of NSCLC patients with pulmonary SCC, with increased tumor size, with a positive lymph node status and NSCLC patients who received adjuvant therapies. This study provides first data for immune-context related risk stratification of NSCLC patients. Further studies are necessary both to confirm this observation and to evaluate the predictive value of PD-1 and PD-L1 in NSCLC in the context of PD-1 inhibition.