Oncogene-specific differences in tumor mutational burden, PD-L1 expression, and outcomes from immunotherapy in non-small cell lung cancer

J Immunother Cancer. 2021 Aug;9(8):e002891. doi: 10.1136/jitc-2021-002891.


Background: Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients bearing targetable oncogene alterations typically derive limited benefit from immune checkpoint blockade (ICB), which has been attributed to low tumor mutation burden (TMB) and/or PD-L1 levels. We investigated oncogene-specific differences in these markers and clinical outcome.

Methods: Three cohorts of NSCLC patients with oncogene alterations (n=4189 total) were analyzed. Two clinical cohorts of advanced NSCLC patients treated with ICB monotherapy [MD Anderson (MDACC; n=172) and Flatiron Health-Foundation Medicine Clinico-Genomic Database (CGDB; n=894 patients)] were analyzed for clinical outcome. The FMI biomarker cohort (n=4017) was used to assess the association of oncogene alterations with TMB and PD-L1 expression.

Results: High PD-L1 expression (PD-L1 ≥50%) rate was 19%-20% in classic EGFR, EGFR exon 20 and HER2-mutant tumors, and 34%-55% in tumors with ALK, BRAF V600E, ROS1, RET, or MET alterations. Compared with KRAS-mutant tumors, BRAF non-V600E group had higher TMB (9.6 vs KRAS 7.8 mutations/Mb, p=0.003), while all other oncogene groups had lower TMB (p<0.001). In the two clinical cohorts treated with ICB, molecular groups with EGFR, HER2, ALK, ROS1, RET, or MET alterations had short progression-free survival (PFS; 1.8-3.7 months), while BRAF V600E group was associated with greater clinical benefit from ICB (CGDB cohort: PFS 9.8 months vs KRAS 3.7 months, HR 0.66, p=0.099; MDACC cohort: response rate 62% vs KRAS 24%; PFS 7.4 vs KRAS 2.8 months, HR 0.36, p=0.026). KRAS G12C and non-G12C subgroups had similar clinical benefit from ICB in both cohorts. In a multivariable analysis, BRAF V600E mutation (HR 0.58, p=0.041), PD-L1 expression (HR 0.57, p=0.022), and high TMB (HR 0.66, p<0.001) were associated with longer PFS.

Conclusions: High TMB and PD-L1 expression are predictive for benefit from ICB treatment in oncogene-driven NSCLCs. NSCLC harboring BRAF mutations demonstrated superior benefit from ICB that may be attributed to higher TMB and higher PD-L1 expression in these tumors. Meanwhile EGFR and HER2 mutations and ALK, ROS1, RET, and MET fusions define NSCLC subsets with minimal benefit from ICB despite high PD-L1 expression in NSCLC harboring oncogene fusions. These findings indicate a TMB/PD-L1-independent impact on sensitivity to ICB for certain oncogene alterations.

Keywords: immunotherapy; lung neoplasms; tumor biomarkers.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • B7-H1 Antigen / antagonists & inhibitors
  • B7-H1 Antigen / biosynthesis*
  • B7-H1 Antigen / immunology
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung / drug therapy*
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung / genetics*
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung / immunology
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung / pathology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Humans
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Immunotherapy / methods*
  • Lung Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Lung Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Lung Neoplasms / immunology
  • Lung Neoplasms / pathology
  • Oncogenes
  • Progression-Free Survival
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Tumor Burden


  • B7-H1 Antigen
  • CD274 protein, human
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors