Initial results by Le and colleagues, which were published in the June 25, 2015 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, report significant responses of cancers with microsatellite instability (MSI) to anti-PD-1 inhibitors in patients who failed conventional therapy. This finding fits into a broader body of research associating somatic hypermutation and neoepitope formation with response to immunotherapy, with the added benefit of relying on a simple, widely used diagnostic test. This review surveys the pathogenesis and prognostic value of MSI, diagnostic guidelines for detecting it, and the frequency of MSI across tumors, with the goal of providing a reference for its use as a biomarker for PD-1 blockade. MSI usually arises from either germline mutations in components of the mismatch repair (MMR) machinery (MSH2, MSH6, MLH1, PMS2) in patients with Lynch syndrome or somatic hypermethylation of the MLH1 promoter. The result is a cancer with a 10- to 100-fold increase in mutations, associated in the colon with poor differentiation, an intense lymphocytic infiltrate, and a superior prognosis. Diagnostic approaches have evolved since the early 1990s, from relying exclusively on clinical criteria to incorporating pathologic features, PCR-based MSI testing, and immunohistochemistry for loss of MMR component expression. Tumor types can be grouped into categories based on the frequency of MSI, from colorectal (20%) and endometrial (22%-33%) to cervical (8%) and esophageal (7%) to skin and breast cancers (0%-2%). If initial results are validated, MSI testing could have an expanded role as a tool in the armamentarium of precision medicine.
©2016 American Association for Cancer Research.