Introduction: Breast cancer during pregnancy (PrBC) accounts for ~4% of breast cancer cases in young women and its intrinsic biology is still largely undetermined. Tumor microenvironment (TME) of PrBC has been recently characterized with low levels of stromal tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) and high relative expression of programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1), suggesting an increased immune evasion. The underlying immune landscape, however, has not been unveiled. Given the significant alterations of the immune system during gestation, we hypothesized that the TME of PrBC might have distinct biological traits. Here, we sought to evaluate the outcome of PrBC according to the TME characteristics and to assess whether pathogenic mechanisms of immune evasion are involved. Methods: Representative formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissue blocks of 83 consecutive PrBC and 89 age-matched early-onset pregnancy-unrelated breast cancers (controls) were subjected to immunohistochemistry (IHC) using antibodies against CD4, CD8, forkhead box P3 (FOXP3), and PD-L1 (clone 22C3) on a Dako Omnis platform. For all cases, TILs were evaluated according to the International TILs Working Group recommendations. Next-generation sequencing gene expression of 395 genes involved in tumor-immune interactions (Oncomine™ Immune Response Research Assay) was performed on RNA extracted from PrBC (n=20) and controls (n=16). Samples with mapped reads >1,000,000 and valid reads >800,000 were considered adequate. Fisher’s and Chi-squared tests, multinomial logistic regression models, ROC curve, and survival analyses were performed. Results: The fraction of tumors with CD8+TILs was significantly higher in PrBC than in the controls (n=71(85.0%) vs. n=61(68.5%); p=0.02), being mirrored by less cases with CD4+TILs (n=27 (32.5%) vs. n=43 (48.3%); p=0.03). Even higher differences were observed in hormone receptor (HR)+/HER2-negative tumors (CD8: n=39 (88.6%) vs. n=39 (66.1%); p=0.01). After a median follow-up of 78 (range, 1-247), 66/83 women (79.5%) with PrBC were alive and 53/83 (63.8%) relapse-free. Overall, PrBC with CD8+TILs had a better outcome compared to CD8-negative PrBC (OS 81 vs 69 months p=0.05) and CD8 expression was associated with better outcomes in HR+/HER2-negative tumors (OS p=0.02; DFS p=0.04). The overall comparison of immune-related genes in the 34 cases (PrBC, n=18; controls, n=16) that reached the quality parameters revealed significant differences in the expression of 63 immune-related genes. Of these, 4 genes (IFNA17, IFNB1, FUT4, and PECAM1) were upregulated, while 59 genes were downregulated in PrBC compared to the controls. Interestingly, IFNA17, IFNB1, and FUT4 remained upregulated in HR+ PrBC, where a slightly reduced number of differentially expressed genes was observed (n=60). In HR-/HER2- PrBC, only 25 genes were differentially expressed, of which 9, including IFNA17 and PECAM1, were significantly upregulated. Discussion: These data have the potential of improving our knowledge of the immunobiology that characterizes PrBC, suggesting that in these tumors the higher frequency of CD8+TILs might be related to an enhanced anti-tumor immune response, as CD8 expression was associated with better outcomes in PrBC. On the other hand, given that interferons (IFNs) may also trigger immune suppressive mechanisms in cancer cells, the activation of type I IFNs encoded by IFNA17 and IFNB1 seen in our RNA-seq analysis, combined with the lower frequency of CD4+TILs observed, suggest CD4+ cell suppression as a possible mechanism of immune evasion. Conclusion: PrBC TME is characterized by specific patterns of TILs subpopulations due to the possible activation of type I IFNs and its assessment might help in identifying women at high risk of death and recurrence.
Citation Format: Nicola Fusco, Elham Sajjadi, Konstantinos Venetis, Barbara Buonomo, Concetta Blundo, Massimo Giroda, Eugenia Di Loreto, Giovanna Scarfone, Stefano Ferrero, Paolo Veronesi, Viviana E. Galimberti, Massimo Barberis, Giuseppe Viale, Elena Guerini-Rocco, Fedro A. Peccatori. Tumor microenvironment characteristics and prognosis in breast cancer during pregnancy: The role of differentially expressed immune-related genes [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the 2021 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium; 2021 Dec 7-10; San Antonio, TX. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2022;82(4 Suppl):Abstract nr P4-07-02.