This article was originally published here
J Natl Cancer Inst. 2021 Jan 5:djaa215. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djaa215. Online ahead of print.
BACKGROUND: Blacks tend to have a stronger inflammatory immune response than Whites. We hypothesized that racial differences in host immunity also manifest in the tumor microenvironment (TME), constituting part of a distinct aggressive tumor biology underlying higher mortality in Black women.
METHODS: Pathological and gene expression profiling approaches were used for characterizing infiltrating immune cells in breast TME from 1,315 patients from the Women’s Circle of Health Study. Racial differences in tumor immune phenotypes were compared, with results validated in a publicly accessible dataset. Prognostic associations of immune phenotypes were assessed in three independent cohorts.
RESULTS: We found marked and consistent differences in tumor immune responses between Black and White patients. Not only did tumors from Blacks display a stronger overall immune presence, but the composition and quality of immune infiltrates differed, regardless of tumor subtypes. Black patients had a stronger CD4+/B cell response, and further, a more exhausted CD8+ T cell profile. A signature indicating a higher ratio of exhausted CD8+ T cells to total CD8+ T cells (ExCD8-r) was consistently associated with poorer survival, particularly among hormone receptor (HR)-positive patients. Among HR-negative patients, combinations of the absolute fraction of CD8+ T cells and ExCD8-r signature identified the CD8lowExCD8-rhigh subgroup, the most prevalent among Blacks, with the worst survival.
CONCLUSIONS: Our findings of a distinct exhausted CD8+ T cell signature in Black breast cancer patients indicates an immunobiological basis for their more aggressive disease, and also a rationale for the use of immune checkpoint inhibitors targeting the exhaustion phenotype.