Blood Immune Cell Biomarkers in Lung Cancer Patients Undergoing Treatment with a Combination of Chemotherapy and Immune Checkpoint Blockade

Cancers (Basel). 2022 Jul 28;14(15):3690. doi: 10.3390/cancers14153690.


Although immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI) therapies have improved the treatment of patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), several patients do not achieve durable clinical responses. Biomarkers for the prediction of therapy responses are urgently needed. To identify blood cell parameters correlating with patients’ survival, immune cells from 90 patients with NSCLC undergoing a combination of ICI and chemotherapy were prospectively monitored. At the time point of the first and third antibody administration, complete leukocyte blood count, the percentage of HLA-DRlow monocytes, the percentage of 6-Sulfo LacNAc (slan)+CD16+ non-classical monocytes, and the number of circulating dendritic cell (DC) subtypes, as well as T-, B-, and NK cells were determined by multi-color flow cytometry in peripheral blood. The prognostic value of the immune cell parameters investigated was evaluated by patients’ survival analysis, with progression-free survival (PFS) as the main criterion. A total of 67 patients (74.4%) showed a partial remission or a stable disease, and 35% of patients even survived 12 months and longer. Patients with a neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio (NLR) ≥6.1, a frequency of HLA-DRlow monocytes ≥22%, of slan+ non-classical monocytes <0.25% of leukocytes, and/or a sum of myeloid DC (MDC) and plasmacytoid DC (PDC) ≤0.14% of leukocytes had a poorer prognosis. The hazard ratio for PFS was 2.097 (1.208−3.640) for the NLR, 1.964 (1.046−3.688) for HLA-DRlow monocytes, 3.202 (1.712−5.99) for slan+ non-classical monocytes, and 2.596 (1.478−4.56) for the MDC/PDC sum. Patients without any of the four risk factors showed the best PFS. Furthermore, low NK cell counts correlated with shorter PFS (cutoff 200 cells/µL). Female patients had lower baseline NK cell counts and a shorter PFS. Our study confirms the usefulness of blood immune cells as biomarkers for clinical response and survival in NSCLC patients undergoing a combined ICI/chemotherapy.

Keywords: biomarker; dendritic cells; immune checkpoint blockade; immune monitoring; lung cancer; prognosis.

Grants and funding

This research received no external funding.