Infiltration of NK and plasma cells is associated with a distinct immune subset in non-small cell lung cancer

J Pathol. 2021 Nov;255(3):243-256. doi: 10.1002/path.5772. Epub 2021 Aug 26.


Immune cells of the tumor microenvironment are central but erratic targets for immunotherapy. The aim of this study was to characterize novel patterns of immune cell infiltration in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) in relation to its molecular and clinicopathologic characteristics. Lymphocytes (CD3+, CD4+, CD8+, CD20+, FOXP3+, CD45RO+), macrophages (CD163+), plasma cells (CD138+), NK cells (NKp46+), PD1+, and PD-L1+ were annotated on a tissue microarray including 357 NSCLC cases. Somatic mutations were analyzed by targeted sequencing for 82 genes and a tumor mutational load score was estimated. Transcriptomic immune patterns were established in 197 patients based on RNA sequencing data. The immune cell infiltration was variable and showed only poor association with specific mutations. The previously defined immune phenotypic patterns, desert, inflamed, and immune excluded, comprised 30, 13, and 57% of cases, respectively. Notably, mRNA immune activation and high estimated tumor mutational load were unique only for the inflamed pattern. However, in the unsupervised cluster analysis, including all immune cell markers, these conceptual patterns were only weakly reproduced. Instead, four immune classes were identified: (1) high immune cell infiltration, (2) high immune cell infiltration with abundance of CD20+ B cells, (3) low immune cell infiltration, and (4) a phenotype with an imprint of plasma cells and NK cells. This latter class was linked to better survival despite exhibiting low expression of immune response-related genes (e.g. CXCL9, GZMB, INFG, CTLA4). This compartment-specific immune cell analysis in the context of the molecular and clinical background of NSCLC reveals two previously unrecognized immune classes. A refined immune classification, including traits of the humoral and innate immune response, is important to define the immunogenic potency of NSCLC in the era of immunotherapy. © 2021 The Authors. The Journal of Pathology published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. on behalf of The Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

Keywords: NSCLC; PD-L1; checkpoint therapy; immune cell infiltration; lung cancer; p53; tumor microenvironment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung / immunology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Lung Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / immunology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Plasma Cells*
  • Tumor Microenvironment / immunology*