Research Article: Tissue analyses reveal a potential immune-adjuvant function of FAP-1 positive fibroblasts in non-small cell lung cancer

Date Published: February 7, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Thomas Karsten Kilvaer, Mehrdad Rakaee, Turid Hellevik, Arne Østman, Carina Strell, Roy M. Bremnes, Lill-Tove Busund, Tom Dønnem, Inigo Martinez-Zubiaurre, Donald Gullberg.


Selective targeting of cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) has been proposed to synergize with immune-checkpoint inhibitors. While the roles of CAFs in cancer development are well described, their immune-regulatory properties remain incompletely understood. This study investigates correlations between CAF and immune-markers in tumor stroma from non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients, and examines whether a combination of CAF and immune cell scores impact patient prognosis.

Tumor specimens from 536 primary operable stage I-III NSCLC patients were organized in tissue microarrays. Expression of protein-markers was evaluated by immunohistochemistry.

Fibroblast and stromal markers PDGFRα, PDGFRβ, FAP-1 and vimentin showed weak correlations while αSMA, and Masson’s trichrome did not correlate with any of the investigated markers. Hierarchical clustering indicated the existence of different CAF-subsets. No relevant correlations were found between any CAF-marker and the immune-markers CD3, CD4, CD8, CD20, CD68, CD1a, CD56, FoxP3 and CD45RO. High density of fibroblast-activation protein positive mesenchymal cells (CAFFAP) was associated with better prognosis in tumors with high infiltration of CD8 and CD3 T-lymphocytes.

The presented data suggest that CAFs, irrespective of identity, have low influence on the degree of tumor infiltration by inflammatory- and/or immune-cells. However, CAFFAP may exert immuno-adjuvant roles in NSCLC, and targeting CAFs should be cautiously considered.

Partial Text

In solid tumors, complex and reciprocal interactions between neoplastic cells and surrounding cells lead to a tumor tissue compartment often referred to as reactive stroma, desmoplastic stroma or tumor microenvironment. A dominant component of the tumor stroma are fibroblasts, which are known to play determinant roles in tumor initiation, expansion, dissemination and metastasis [1]. Cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) is a generic name given to a heterogeneous group of non-epithelial, non-immune cells with a likely mesenchymal lineage, located within tumors or at the tumor borders [2]. Quiescent connective tissue fibroblasts are generally considered indolent, exhibiting rather low metabolic and transcriptomic activity, and expressing classical mesenchymal markers such as vimentin, integrin α1β1 or FSP-1 [3]. Fibroblasts associated with tumors normally display an activated phenotype, and depending on their origin, morphology or spatial distribution, they may receive different names such as myofibroblasts, activated tumor fibroblasts, activated stellate cells, bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stromal cells or pericytes [4, 5]. Several markers such as αSMA, FAP-1, desmin, podoplanin, neuron-glial antigen 2 (NG2) and PDGF receptors-α and -β are used to identify CAFs. However, due to the great plasticity of this cell population, none of these markers can be used as a universal marker for all CAFs as their expression is likely to be temporal and context dependent [6]. Different CAF subsets, expressing overlapping and non-overlapping markers, can be identified in a single tumor. However, it remains unknown whether the various CAF subtypes in tumors have different functions. In non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), several studies have explored the prognostic significance of established CAF markers such as podoplanin, vimentin, FAP-1, αSMA or PDGFRβ. In most cases, these markers have demonstrated unfavorable outcomes related to survival (Table 1).

A major finding from this in situ study is that the levels of CAFs did not correlate markedly with the infiltration of major leukocyte subsets into NSCLC tumor tissue (Fig 2B), indicating that CAFs may not play a dominant role in the regulation of leukocyte recruitment/infiltration in these tumors. Interestingly, survival analyses show that high levels of CAFFAP in CD3/CD8 infiltrated tumors correlate with increased patient survival. This finding may suggest that CAFFAP positively influence the effector function of cytotoxic tumor infiltrating lymphocytes.




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