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Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2017 Jul;26(7):1139-1145. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-17-0120. Epub 2017 Apr 26.

Cellular Expression of PD-L1 in the Peripheral Blood of Lung Cancer Patients is Associated with Worse Survival.

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Section of Thoracic Surgery, Department of Surgery, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut.
Epic Sciences, San Diego, California.
Section of Thoracic Surgery, Department of Surgery, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut.
Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy, and Effectiveness Research Center, Department of Internal Medicine, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut.
Department of Medicine, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California.
University of Southern California, Norris Cancer Center, Los Angeles, California.


Background: Lung cancer treatment has become increasingly dependent upon invasive biopsies to profile tumors for personalized therapy. Recently, tumor expression of programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) has gained interest as a potential predictor of response to immunotherapy. Circulating biomarkers present an opportunity for tumor profiling without the risks of invasive procedures. We characterized PD-L1 expression within populations of nucleated cells in the peripheral blood of lung cancer patients in hopes of expanding the role of liquid biopsy in this setting.Methods: Peripheral blood samples from a multi-institutional prospective study of patients with clinical diagnosis of lung cancer were subjected to cytomorphometric and immunohistochemical evaluation using single-cell, automated slide-based, digital pathology. PD-L1 expression was determined by immunofluorescence.Results: PD-L1 expression was detected within peripheral circulating cells associated with malignancy (CCAM) in 26 of 112 (23%) non-small cell lung cancer patients. Two distinct populations of nucleated, nonhematolymphoid, PD-L1-expressing cells were identified; cytokeratin positive (CK+, PD-L1+, CD45-) and cytokeratin negative (CK-, PD-L1+, CD45-) cells, both with cytomorphometric features (size, nuclear-to-cytoplasm ratio) consistent with tumor cells. Patients with >1.1 PD-L1(+) cell/mL (n = 14/112) experienced worse overall survival than patients with ≤1.1 PD-L1(+) cell/mL (2-year OS: 31.2% vs. 78.8%, P = 0.00159). In a Cox model adjusting for stage, high PD-L1(+) cell burden remained a significant predictor of mortality (HR = 3.85; 95% confidence interval, 1.64-9.09; P = 0.002).Conclusions: PD-L1 expression is detectable in two distinct cell populations in the peripheral blood of lung cancer patients and is associated with worse survival.Impact: These findings could represent a step forward in the development of minimally invasive liquid biopsies for the profiling of tumors. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev; 26(7); 1139-45. ©2017 AACR.

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