Background & aims: Tertiary lymphoid structures (TLSs) provide a local and critical microenvironment for generating anti-tumor cellular and humoral immune responses. TLSs are associated with improved clinical outcomes in most solid tumors investigated to date. However, their role in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is debated, as they have recently been shown to promote the growth of malignant hepatocyte progenitors in the non-tumoral liver.
Methods: We aimed to determine, by pathological review, the prognostic significance of both intra-tumoral and non-tumoral TLSs in a series of 273 patients with HCC treated by surgical resection in Henri Mondor University Hospital. Findings were further validated by gene expression profiling using a public data set (LCI cohort).
Results: TLSs were identified in 47% of the tumors, by pathological review, with lymphoid aggregates, primary and secondary follicles in 26%, 16% and 5% of the cases, respectively. Univariate and multivariate analyses showed that intra-tumoral TLSs significantly correlated with a lower risk of early relapse (<2 years after surgery, hazard ratio 0.46, p = 0.005). Interestingly, the risk of recurrence was also related to the degree of TLS maturation (primary or secondary follicles vs. lymphoid aggregates, p = 0.01). A gene expression signature associated with the presence of intra-tumoral TLS was also independently associated with a lower risk of early relapse in the LCI cohort. No association between the density of TLSs located in the adjacent non-tumoral liver and early or late recurrence was observed.
Conclusions: We have shown that intra-tumoral TLSs are associated with a lower risk of early relapse in 2 independent cohorts of patients with HCC treated by surgical resection. Thus, intra-tumoral TLSs may reflect the existence of ongoing, effective anti-tumor immunity.
Lay summary: Tertiary lymphoid structures provide a critical microenvironment for generating anti-tumor immune responses, and are associated with improved clinical outcome in most cancers investigated. Their role in hepatocellular carcinoma is however debated. We show in the present study that intra-tumoral tertiary lymphoid structures are associated with a low risk of early relapse after surgical resection, suggesting that they reflect the existence of in situ, effective anti-tumor immunity.
Keywords: Hepatocellular carcinoma; Immunity; Recurrence; Tertiary lymphoid structures.
Copyright © 2018 European Association for the Study of the Liver. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.