Lymphocytic infiltration in stage II microsatellite stable colorectal tumors: A retrospective prognosis biomarker analysis

PLoS Med. 2020 Sep 24;17(9):e1003292. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003292. eCollection 2020 Sep.


Background: Identifying stage II patients with colorectal cancer (CRC) at higher risk of progression is a clinical priority in order to optimize the advantages of adjuvant chemotherapy while avoiding unnecessary toxicity. Recently, the intensity and the quality of the host immune response in the tumor microenvironment have been reported to have an important role in tumorigenesis and an inverse association with tumor progression. This association is well established in microsatellite instable CRC. In this work, we aim to assess the usefulness of measures of T-cell infiltration as prognostic biomarkers in 640 stage II, CRC tumors, 582 of them confirmed microsatellite stable.

Methods and findings: We measured both the quantity and clonality index of T cells by means of T-cell receptor (TCR) immunosequencing in a discovery dataset (95 patients with colon cancer diagnosed at stage II and microsatellite stable, median age 67, 30% women) and replicated the results in 3 additional series of stage II patients from 2 countries. Series 1 and 2 were recruited in Barcelona, Spain and included 112 fresh frozen (FF, median age 69, 44% women) and 163 formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded (FFPE, median age 67, 39% women) samples, respectively. Series 3 included 270 FFPE samples from patients recruited in Haifa, Northern Israel, as part of a large case-control study of CRC (median age 73, 46% women). Median follow-up time was 81.1 months. Cox regression models were fitted to evaluate the prognostic value of T-cell abundance and Simpson clonality of TCR variants adjusting by sex, age, tumor location, and stage (IIA and IIB). In the discovery dataset, higher TCR abundance was associated with better prognosis (hazard ratio [HR] for ≥Q1 = 0.25, 95% CI 0.10-0.63, P = 0.003). A functional analysis of gene expression on these tumors revealed enrichment in pathways related to immune response. Higher values of clonality index (lower diversity) were not associated with worse disease-free survival, though the HR for ≥Q3 was 2.32 (95% CI 0.90-5.97, P = 0.08). These results were replicated in an independent FF dataset (TCR abundance: HR = 0.30, 95% CI 0.12-0.72, P = 0.007; clonality: HR = 3.32, 95% CI 1.38-7.94, P = 0.007). Also, the association with prognosis was tested in 2 independent FFPE datasets. The same association was observed with TCR abundance (HR = 0.41, 95% CI 0.18-0.93, P = 0.03 and HR = 0.56, 95% CI 0.31-1, P = 0.042, respectively, for each FFPE dataset). However, the clonality index was associated with prognosis only in the FFPE dataset from Israel (HR = 2.45, 95% CI 1.39-4.32, P = 0.002). Finally, a combined analysis combining all microsatellite stable (MSS) samples demonstrated a clear prognosis value both for TCR abundance (HR = 0.39, 95% CI 0.26-0.57, P = 1.3e-06) and the clonality index (HR = 2.13, 95% CI 1.44-3.15, P = 0.0002). These associations were also observed when variables were considered continuous in the models (HR per log2 of TCR abundance = 0.85, 95% CI 0.78-0.93, P = 0.0002; HR per log2 or clonality index = 1.16, 95% CI 1.03-1.31, P = 0.016).

Limitations: This is a retrospective study, and samples had been preserved with different methods. Validation series lack complete information about microsatellite instability (MSI) status and pathology assessment. The Molecular Epidemiology of Colorectal Cancer (MECC) study had information about overall survival instead of progression-free survival.

Conclusion: Results from this study demonstrate that tumor lymphocytes, assessed by TCR repertoire quantification based on a sequencing method, are an independent prognostic factor in microsatellite stable stage II CRC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Chemotherapy, Adjuvant
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Disease Progression
  • Disease-Free Survival
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / immunology
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / metabolism
  • Male
  • Microsatellite Instability
  • Microsatellite Repeats / genetics*
  • Microsatellite Repeats / immunology
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Prognosis
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Spain
  • Tumor Microenvironment / genetics
  • Tumor Microenvironment / immunology


  • Biomarkers, Tumor