Immune analysis of lymph nodes in relation to the presence or absence of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes in triple-negative breast cancer

Eur J Cancer. 2021 May;148:134-145. doi: 10.1016/j.ejca.2021.01.037. Epub 2021 Mar 17.


Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is a subtype of breast cancer with unmet medical needs. Several studies have proved that high levels of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) at diagnosis of TNBC confer better prognosis and patients respond better to specific chemotherapies. Nonetheless, current evidence suggests that only 15% of TNBC patients have very high levels of TILs, and another 15% lacks TILs. One possible reason to explain why patients have low TILs at diagnosis is that lymphocytes might be deactivated by an immune checkpoint in local lymph nodes, provoking their retention in there as they are unresponsive to other immune stimuli. We have identified 15 high TILs (≥50%) and 20 low TILs (≤5%) TNBC patients with localised tumour (T1c-T2N0M0) and compared the protein expression of five immune checkpoints in lymph nodes. We have also performed a customised 50-immune gene NanoString expression panel, the NanoString 360 Breast Cancer panel, and whole exome sequencing for mutation and neoantigen load analyses. In low TILs, we observed higher expression of CTLA-4 in local lymph nodes, which could explain why lymphocytes get retained in there and do not migrate to tumour. These patients have also higher neoantigen load and higher expression of B7.H3 and B7.H4 in the tumour. In high TILs, we observed more PD-L1+ tumour cells and more expanded humoral response. These results could provide a strategy to revert low tumour immune infiltration at diagnosis of TNBC, improving their prognosis.

Keywords: Immune checkpoint inhibitors; Lymph nodes; Neoantigens; Triple-negative breast cancer; Tumor infiltrating lymphocytes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Humans
  • Lymph Nodes / immunology*
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / immunology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Prognosis
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / surgery


  • Biomarkers, Tumor