Optimized tumour infiltrating lymphocyte assessment for triple negative breast cancer prognostics.

M. Balkenhol, F. Ciompi, Z. Swiderska-Chadaj, R. van de Loo, M. Intezar, I. Otte-Holler, D. Geijs, J. Lotz, N. Weiss, T. de Bel, G. Litjens, P. Bult and J. van der Laak

The Breast 2021;56:78-87.


The tumour microenvironment has been shown to be a valuable source of prognostic information for different cancer types. This holds in particular for triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), a breast cancer subtype for which currently no prognostic biomarkers are established. Although different methods to assess tumour infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) have been published, it remains unclear which method (marker, region) yields the most optimal prognostic information. In addition, to date, no objective TILs assessment methods are available. For this proof of concept study, a subset of our previously described TNBC cohort (n = 94) was stained for CD3, CD8 and FOXP3 using multiplex immunohistochemistry and subsequently imaged by a multispectral imaging system. Advanced whole-slide image analysis algorithms, including convolutional neural networks (CNN) were used to register unmixed multispectral images and corresponding H&E sections, to segment the different tissue compartments (tumour, stroma) and to detect all individual positive lymphocytes. Densities of positive lymphocytes were analysed in different regions within the tumour and its neighbouring environment and correlated to relapse free survival (RFS) and overall survival (OS). We found that for all TILs markers the presence of a high density of positive cells correlated with an improved survival. None of the TILs markers was superior to the others. The results of TILs assessment in the various regions did not show marked differences between each other. The negative correlation between TILs and survival in our cohort are in line with previous studies. Our results provide directions for optimizing TILs assessment methodology.