The immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI) pembrolizumab is US FDA approved for treatment of solid tumors with high tumor mutational burden (TMB-high; ≥10 variants/Mb). However, the extent to which TMB-high generalizes as an accurate biomarker in diverse patient populations is largely unknown. Using two clinical cohorts, we investigated the interplay between genetic ancestry, TMB, and tumor-only versus tumor-normal paired sequencing in solid tumors. TMB estimates from tumor-only panels substantially overclassified individuals into the clinically important TMB-high group due to germline contamination, and this bias was particularly pronounced in patients with Asian/African ancestry. Among patients with non-small cell lung cancer treated with ICIs, those misclassified as TMB-high from tumor-only panels did not associate with improved outcomes. TMB-high was significantly associated with improved outcomes only in European ancestries and merits validation in non-European ancestry populations. Ancestry-aware tumor-only TMB calibration and ancestry-diverse biomarker studies are critical to ensure that existing disparities are not exacerbated in precision medicine.
Keywords: biomarker; cancer disparities; genetic ancestry; genomics; immunotherapy; tumor mutational burden.
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