Background: Foxp3+ regulatory T cells (Tregs) play a vital role in preventing autoimmunity, but also suppress antitumour immune responses. Tumour infiltration by Tregs has strong prognostic significance in colorectal cancer, and accumulating evidence suggests that chemotherapy and radiotherapy efficacy has an immune-mediated component. Whether Tregs play an inhibitory role in chemoradiotherapy (CRT) response in rectal cancer remains unknown.
Methods: Foxp3+, CD3+, CD4+, CD8+ and IL-17+ cell density in post-CRT surgical samples from 128 patients with rectal cancer was assessed by immunohistochemistry. The relationship between T-cell subset densities and clinical outcome (tumour regression and survival) was evaluated.
Results: Stromal Foxp3+ cell density was strongly associated with tumour regression grade (P=0.0006). A low stromal Foxp3+ cell density was observed in 84% of patients who had a pathologic complete response (pCR) compared with 41% of patients who did not (OR: 7.56, P=0.0005; OR: 5.27, P=0.006 after adjustment for presurgery clinical factors). Low stromal Foxp3+ cell density was also associated with improved recurrence-free survival (HR: 0.46, P=0.03), although not independent of tumour regression grade.
Conclusions: Regulatory T cells in the tumour microenvironment may inhibit response to neoadjuvant CRT and may represent a therapeutic target in rectal cancer.