Background LKB1 (STK11) is a commonly disrupted tumor suppressor in NSCLC. Its loss promotes an immune exclusion phenotype with evidence of low expression of interferon stimulated genes (ISG) and decreased microenvironment immune infiltration.1 2 Clinically, LKB1 loss induces primary immunotherapy resistance.3 LKB1 is a master regulator of a complex downstream kinase network and has pleiotropic effects on cell biology. Understanding the heterogeneous phenotypes associated with LKB1 loss and their influence on tumor-immune biology will help define and overcome mechanisms of immunotherapy resistance within this subset of lung cancer.
Methods We applied multi-omic analyses across multiple lung adenocarcinoma datasets2 4–6 (>1000 tumors) to define transcriptional and genetic features enriched in LKB1-deficient lung cancer. Top scoring phenotypes exhibited heterogeneity across LKB1-loss tumors, and were further interrogated to determine association with increased or decreased markers of immune activity. Further, immune cell-types were estimated by Cibersort to identify effects of LKB1 loss on the immune microenvironment. Key conclusions were confirmed by blinded pathology review.
Results We show that LKB1 loss significantly affects differentiation patterns, with enrichment of ASCL1-expressing tumors with putative neuroendocrine differentiation. LKB1-deficient neuroendocrine tumors had lower expression of Interferon Stimulated Genes (ISG), MHC1 and MHC2 components, and immune infiltration compared to LKB1-WT and non-neuroendocrine LKB1-deficient tumors (figure 1).The abundances of 22 immune cell types assessed by Cibersort were compared between LKB1-deficient and LKB1-WT tumors. We observe skewing of immune microenvironmental composition by LKB1 loss, with lower abundance of dendritic cells, monocytes, and macrophages, and increased levels of neutrophils and plasma cells (table 1). These trends were most pronounced among tumors with neuroendocrine differentiation, and were concordant across three independent datasets. In a confirmatory subset of 20 tumors, plasma cell abundance was assessed by a blinded pathologist. Pathologist assessment was 100% concordant with Cibersort prediction, and association with LKB1 loss was confirmed (P=0.001).
Conclusions We conclude that tumor differentiation patterns strongly influence the immune microenvironment and immune exclusion characteristics of LKB1-deficient tumors. Neuroendocrine differentiation is associated with the strongest immune exclusion characteristics and should be evaluated clinically for evidence of immunotherapy resistance. A novel observation of increased plasma cell abundance is observed across multiple datasets and confirmed by pathology. Causal mechanisms linking differentiation status to immune activity is not well understood, and the functional role of plasma cells in the immune biology of LKB1-deficient tumors is undefined. These questions warrant further study to inform precision immuno-oncology treatments for these patients.
Acknowledgements This work was funded by SITC AZ Immunotherapy in Lung Cancer grant (SPS256666) and DOD Lung Cancer Research Program Concept Award (LC180633).
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