Low neoantigen expression and poor T-cell priming underlie early immune escape in colorectal cancer

Nat Cancer. 2021 Oct;2(10):1071-1085. doi: 10.1038/s43018-021-00247-z. Epub 2021 Sep 30.


Immune evasion is a hallmark of cancer, and therapies that restore immune surveillance have proven highly effective in cancers with high tumor mutation burden (TMB) (e.g., those with microsatellite instability (MSI)). Whether low TMB cancers, which are largely refractory to immunotherapy, harbor potentially immunogenic neoantigens remains unclear. Here, we show that tumors from all patients with microsatellite stable (MSS) colorectal cancer (CRC) express clonal predicted neoantigens despite low TMB. Unexpectedly, these neoantigens are broadly expressed at lower levels compared to those in MSI CRC. Using a versatile platform for modulating neoantigen expression in CRC organoids and transplantation into the distal colon of mice, we show that low expression precludes productive cross priming and drives immediate T cell dysfunction. Strikingly, experimental or therapeutic rescue of priming rendered T cells capable of controlling tumors with low neoantigen expression. These findings underscore a critical role of neoantigen expression level in immune evasion and therapy response.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Neoplasm / genetics
  • Colorectal Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy
  • Mice
  • Microsatellite Instability
  • T-Lymphocytes*


  • Antigens, Neoplasm