WNT/β-catenin Pathway Activation Correlates with Immune Exclusion across Human Cancers

Clin Cancer Res. 2019 May 15;25(10):3074-3083. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-18-1942. Epub 2019 Jan 11.


Purpose: The T-cell-inflamed phenotype correlates with efficacy of immune-checkpoint blockade, whereas non-T-cell-inflamed tumors infrequently benefit. Tumor-intrinsic WNT/β-catenin signaling mediates immune exclusion in melanoma, but association with the non-T-cell-inflamed tumor microenvironment in other tumor types is not well understood.

Experimental design: Using The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), a T-cell-inflamed gene expression signature segregated samples within tumor types. Activation of WNT/β-catenin signaling was inferred using three approaches: somatic mutations or somatic copy number alterations (SCNA) in β-catenin signaling elements including CTNNB1, APC, APC2, AXIN1, and AXIN2; pathway prediction from RNA-sequencing gene expression; and inverse correlation of β-catenin protein levels with the T-cell-inflamed gene expression signature.

Results: Across TCGA, 3,137/9,244 (33.9%) tumors were non-T-cell-inflamed, whereas 3,161/9,244 (34.2%) were T-cell-inflamed. Non-T-cell-inflamed tumors demonstrated significantly lower expression of T-cell inflammation genes relative to matched normal tissue, arguing for loss of a natural immune phenotype. Mutations of β-catenin signaling molecules in non-T-cell-inflamed tumors were enriched three-fold relative to T-cell-inflamed tumors. Across 31 tumors, 28 (90%) demonstrated activated β-catenin signaling in the non-T-cell-inflamed subset by at least one method. This included target molecule expression from somatic mutations and/or SCNAs of β-catenin signaling elements (19 tumors, 61%), pathway analysis (14 tumors, 45%), and increased β-catenin protein levels (20 tumors, 65%).

Conclusions: Activation of tumor-intrinsic WNT/β-catenin signaling is enriched in non-T-cell-inflamed tumors. These data provide a strong rationale for development of pharmacologic inhibitors of this pathway with the aim of restoring immune cell infiltration and augmenting immunotherapy.See related commentary by Dangaj et al., p. 2943.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Melanoma / genetics*
  • Mutation
  • Tumor Microenvironment
  • Wnt Signaling Pathway
  • beta Catenin / genetics*


  • beta Catenin