Regulatory T cells (Tregs) are a heterogeneous cell population that can either suppress or stimulate immune responses. Tumor-infiltrating Tregs are associated with an adverse outcome from most cancer types, but have generally been found to be associated with a good prognosis in colorectal cancer (CRC). We investigated the prognostic heterogeneity of Tregs in CRC by co-expression patterns and spatial analyses with diverse T cell markers, using multiplex fluorescence immunohistochemistry and digital image analysis in two consecutive series of primary CRCs (total n = 1720). Treg infiltration in tumors, scored as FOXP3+ or CD4+/CD25+/FOXP3+ (triple-positive) cells, was strongly correlated to the overall amount of CD3+ and CD8+ T cells, and consequently associated with a favorable 5-year relapse-free survival rate among patients with stage I-III CRC who underwent complete tumor resection. However, high relative expression of the activation marker CD25 in triple-positive Tregs was independently associated with an adverse outcome in a multivariable model incorporating clinicopathological and known molecular prognostic markers (hazard ratio = 1.35, p = 0.028). Furthermore, spatial marker analysis based on Voronoi diagrams and permutation testing of cellular neighborhoods revealed a statistically significant proximity between Tregs and CD8+-cells in 18% of patients, and this was independently associated with a poor survival (multivariable hazard ratio = 1.36, p = 0.017). These results show prognostic heterogeneity of different Treg populations in primary CRC, and highlight the importance of multi-marker and spatial analyses for accurate immunophenotyping of tumors in relation to patient outcome.
© 2022. The Author(s).