PD-L1 immunohistochemistry in clinical diagnostics of lung cancer: inter-pathologist variability is higher than assay variability

Mod Pathol. 2017 Oct;30(10):1411-1421. doi: 10.1038/modpathol.2017.59. Epub 2017 Jun 30.


Assessment of programmed cell death ligand 1 (PD-L1) immunohistochemical staining is used for decision on treatment with programmed cell death 1 and PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitors in lung adenocarcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas. This study aimed to compare the staining properties of tumor cells between the antibody clones 28-8, 22C3, SP142, and SP263 and investigate interrater variation between pathologists to see if these stainings can be safely evaluated in the clinical setting. Using consecutive sections from a tissue microarray with tumor tissue from 55 resected lung cancer cases, staining with five PD-L1 assays (28-8 from two different vendors, 22C3, SP142, and SP263) was performed. Seven pathologists individually evaluated the percentage of positive tumor cells, scoring each sample applying cutoff levels used in clinical studies: <1% positive tumor cells (score 0), 1-4% (score 1), 5-9% (score 2), 10-24% (score 3), 25-49% (score 4), and >50% positive tumor cells (score 5). Pairwise analysis of antibody clones showed weighted kappa values in the range of 0.45-0.91 with the highest values for comparisons with 22C3 and 28-8 and the lowest involving SP142. Excluding SP142 resulted in kappa 0.75-0.91. Weighted kappa for interobserver variation between pathologists was 0.71-0.96. Up to 20% of the cases were differently classified as positive or negative by any pathologist compared with consensus score using ≥1% positive tumor cells as cutoff. A significantly better agreement between pathologists was seen using ≥50% as cutoff (0-5% of cases). In conclusion, the concordance between the PD-L1 antibodies 22C3, 28-8 and SP263 is relatively good when evaluating lung cancers and suggests that any one of these assays may be sufficient as basis for decision on treatment with nivolumab, pembrolizumab, and durvalumab. The scoring of the pathologist presents an intrinsic source of error that should be considered especially at low PD-L1 scores.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • B7-H1 Antigen / analysis*
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / analysis*
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung* / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung* / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Lung Neoplasms* / diagnosis
  • Lung Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy / methods
  • Observer Variation
  • Pathologists


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • B7-H1 Antigen
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • CD274 protein, human